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County commission adjusts general public comment periods, discontinues phone comments

Alachua County Spokesman Mark Sexton explains the costs of the phone comment system to commissioners

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At a special meeting on February 1, the Alachua County Commission made changes to their rules of procedure for meetings and announced that phone comments will be discontinued immediately.

The rules on remote participation that were adopted during COVID-19 will remain, specifying that a physical quorum must be present to vote, but commissioners may participate remotely, and votes may be taken as long as there is a physical quorum. The rules require the physically-present commissioners to make a finding that “extraordinary circumstances” exist to justify the absence of remote commissioners from the meeting. The policy states that “Participation by remote commissioners should never be permitted solely for the convenience of the commissioner.”

Traditionally, the board has taken general public comment (comment on items not on the agenda) four times when they have both morning and evening meetings (sometimes the evening meetings are canceled). The first period is at noon, then a second one at the end of the morning business. If there is an evening session, there has been a general public comment period at 5:30 and then another one at the end of the evening business.

County Attorney Sylvia Torres presented a survey showing that she couldn’t find any other counties with more than two general public comment periods. The board’s rules only require one such period, at the close of the meeting.

For quasi-judicial public hearings, Torres recommended requiring people or entities wishing to participate as a party to give 7 days’ notice (the current policy requires 5 days) and extending the period for submitting evidence from three days to five calendars days prior to the hearing.

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Commissioner Ken Cornell made a motion to approve the changes as presented and keep two time-certain general public comment periods, with any individual limited to speaking at one of those. Commissioner Anna Prizzia said she would like a general public comment period at the end of the morning session if there isn’t an evening session. Torres said she would edit the document and bring it back on a consent agenda with those changes. 

During comment on the motion, attorney Nathan Skop requested 10 minutes to get into the details of their policy on quasi-judicial public hearings, but the request was denied. Chair Marihelen Wheeler told him he could have three minutes to comment on the agenda item and another three minutes during general public comment at the end of the meeting (after their vote). Skop argued that discovery should be allowed in the quasi-judicial process, which is permitted in certain counties, including Leon County. He suggested adopting the rules that have already been vetted in counties like Leon. 

Debbie Martinez asked them to not cut the periods for general public comment and not require speaker cards (the rules say they “may” require speaker cards). Jo Beaty said it seemed they were “solving a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Torres said she didn’t support adding the ability for discovery because it would enable parties to request documents from other parties and the applicant, not just documents that are available to the County (and thus available through public records requests). It could also allow depositions of affected parties, for example, which Torres opposed. 

The motion passed unanimously. 

During public comment later in the meeting (after the vote), Skop said he disagreed with Torres’ statements and that Leon County’s process “is arguably one of the best in the state of Florida.” He said that the County had withheld a “key document” from him in a previous matter, and “you can’t present evidence you don’t have.” He said, “Instead of listening to a practicing attorney helping you… so much for encouraging citizen engagement and participation.”

Phone comments discontinued immediately

At the end of the meeting, County Manager Michele Lieberman told commissioners that she had made “the determination that it is no longer necessary to utilize the [telephone] public comment system after today.”

County spokesman Mark Sexton explained that the average cost per call “has reached a tipping point… The last complete bill we got was for the month of December. The bill was $9,000 for 22 phone calls. We’re on pace to spend over $100,000 in the next year.”

Commissioner Mary Alford asked Sexton to list all the different ways the public can now participate in the meeting “so it’s clear we’re not trying to dissuade people from joining us.” Sexton replied that they’re going to be “pushing out a lot on social media” and that the public can contact the board by email at bocc@alachuacounty.us. He said they would start “highlighting what we think are the major items for the week coming up and giving citizens that email address so they can look at those items, link to the backup, take a look at it, research it, and communicate with commissioners to tell them their thoughts on the matter. And then, of course, we are being safe in the boardroom, people are masked up, and citizens certainly have multiple opportunities to come here and make their views known to you. You can call the county commission office at 352-264-6920—the county commission is great at returning phone calls and having conversations with citizens.”

Lieberman said they would still use Zoom as “an efficient way to bring employees to meetings, to bring in consultants who are out of town.” She said staff may still present things via Zoom, and commissioners can appear via Zoom. She added, “We just won’t be utilizing the public comment piece of that.”

Alford asked whether a citizen who may have a disability or “may be still at risk of COVID exposure” could request in advance to address the commission via Zoom, and Lieberman said, “Typically we don’t do that, that would be a slippery slope. We would encourage them to send their comments in writing, and we will make sure commissioners see that before the meeting.”

Corbin Hanson from the County Attorney’s office pointed out that there is a notice at the bottom of every agenda saying that if you have a disability and need an accommodation, you should contact the Alachua County Equal Opportunity Office. “There’s still that opportunity.”

During general public comment at the end of the meeting, Anthony Johnson asked whether they could discontinue phone comment while having a mask mandate in place in the boardroom. “I thought the mask mandate, you have to offer an alternative way to participate… You remove the mask mandate, there’s no problem with turning off the service. But you’re going to drop it and keep the mask mandate in place, that’s going to be a problem for a lot of folks… I think you should wait until you remove the mask mandate before you turn off the service.”

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