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County commission discusses bringing back remote public comment

County Commissioner Chuck Chestnut discusses phone-in public comment while Chair Marihelen Wheeler listens

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At their April 26 meeting, the Alachua County Commission discussed whether to allow remote public comment in the future. Public comment by phone was added during COVID, and the board discontinued it on February 1, 2022.

In his introduction of the agenda item, Communications Director Mark Sexton reminded the board that citizens have the opportunity to provide public comment in person at noon at each board meeting and at 5:30 if there is an evening portion to the meeting. If there is no evening portion, the board takes public comment at the end of the morning session. 

The public can also email commissioners at bocc@alachuacounty.us, call the communications office, or set up meetings with commissioners. If they need accommodation, they can contact the Equal Opportunity Office; that phone number is on every agenda. 

Sexton said the staff have explored Zoom, they have explored the school board’s phone comment system, and they have explored how Leon County does it. Sexton said Zoom has a new feature called Backstage that allows members of the public to speak remotely during meetings, and another option would be a phone line that collects recorded comments up to some deadline before each meeting; staff would then play those comments back during the meeting or provide a transcript to commissioners. 

Commissioner Mary Alford said she had gotten feedback from “many, many folks” who have various reasons for being unable to appear in person, including mobility challenges and work schedules that make them unavailable for in-person comments. 

Commissioner Anna Prizzia said she was okay with providing an option for recorded comments, but she didn’t favor having someone screen them to decide which ones are suitable for playing at the meeting because of First Amendment rights. However, she wondered how they would know whether the same person called in multiple times unless staff spends “a lot of time screening every single comment, which sort of seems over the top.”

“I think the expectation that anyone can participate in any meeting, anywhere they are at any time, is the wrong expectation… I think if we open up the phone lines, we’ll have 30 minutes of nonsense, and if this is the will of the board, I’m happy to try it, but I’m not in favor of it.” – Commissioner Ken Cornell

Commissioner Ken Cornell said he was “not in favor of any of that.” He said he had reviewed information provided by the County Attorney about public comment policies around the state, and “I don’t know anybody that can’t get in touch with me.” He said he “love[s]” how the County is using remote participation technologies with consultants and staff, “but I think the expectation that anyone can participate in any meeting, anywhere they are at any time, is the wrong expectation… I think if we open up the phone lines, we’ll have 30 minutes of nonsense, and if this is the will of the board, I’m happy to try it, but I’m not in favor of it.”

Commissioner Chuck Chestnut said he preferred for people to have the opportunity to comment during the meeting “if the technology is there to do that, because that seems like we’re still open to the public, only during the meeting.”

County Manager Michele Lieberman reiterated that the recommendation was for a single period of playing recorded comments during the noon public comment period, not a system for the public to comment on each agenda item as it is discussed. 

“To Commissioner Cornell’s comments, I just want to say we do a lot of things that all of the other counties don’t do, and we tend to be first in a lot of arenas, and I’m happy to be first in this one if we are. My opinion: it’s a matter of equity to allow participation in our meetings” – Commissioner Anna Prizzia

After some discussion about what would happen if someone just called in with three minutes of expletives or threatening language or sensitive personal information, Prizzia said she was leaning toward taking comments in real time: “To Commissioner Cornell’s comments, I just want to say we do a lot of things that all of the other counties don’t do, and we tend to be first in a lot of arenas, and I’m happy to be first in this one if we are. My opinion: it’s a matter of equity to allow participation in our meetings… For the average person who works a blue-collar job, has to report their hours, and will take time on their lunch hour to make a phone call to the county commission, I would like to hear from that person… I think a pilot is worthwhile if it doesn’t cost us a fortune.”

Sexton said that using Zoom’s Backstage platform would require the full attention of a staff person, which would not “become onerous if we’re just doing it at that 12:00 period.” He said the cost would be about $900 per year plus staff time.

Prizzia made a motion to ask staff to look into an option for a one-time call-in period during a meeting for any items not on the agenda, along with one period of early comment for items on the agenda, for a pilot period of two months. Lieberman said she didn’t need a motion, just direction from the board. She clarified that Prizzia wanted the comments to be live, not recorded. 

Cornell said he was okay with the Zoom Backstage function: “I’m not convinced this is going to work, but I’m willing to try it.”

Sexton explained that Zoom Backstage would be an improvement over the call-in system that the County used early in COVID (before hiring the call-screening service that was discontinued in February) because Backstage allows callers to continued to listen to the meeting while they are on hold. Backstage will also permit callers to be seen over video if the caller has that capability on their device.

Staff will develop policies for the new comment periods and bring them back to the board as an agenda item at a future meeting, along with any costs associated with the new system.

  • Cornell is a liar. He picks and chooses to respond to emails that don’t contradict his agenda or call him out. All of the commissioners do. If they deem you not worthy, you’re not. The only nonsense is the stupidity he displays and the overreach of county involvement in a person’s life.

    Actually, the real nonsense is that peon masquerading as a concerned representative of the citizens of Alachua County.

  • Citizens should have no impediments when it comes
    To addressing their local governments. In person,
    Without a mask, no Covid shot, no vaccine passport.
    They should be able to attend live and comment on
    Anything that requires a vote. They should be allowed
    5 min at the beginning and at end of every meeting to
    Discuss any issue they want to address. No sign up sheets required.

  • Corny Kenny has been there too long. He should join the ranks of Paula DeLaney, Hutch, and the other retirees.

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