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County Commission sets public comment procedures for upcoming meetings

The County Commission meets via Zoom on April 7

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Under the current state of emergency, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued Executive Order 20-69, which allows local governing bodies to meet via telephone or video conference. As a result, yesterday the Alachua County Commission discussed changes to their meeting procedures.

In describing the new procedures, County Attorney Sylvia Torres said the public will be able to “attend” by watching the meetings on Channel 12, on Facebook, or on the County’s website. In addition, the County will set up a way for people to call in on a phone and hear the audio of the meeting.

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Public comment will be no more than 2 minutes on each proposition per person, for a total of no more than 30 minutes per proposition. Normally, the commission allows 3 minutes per person, with no limit on the amount of time allotted to public comment. The proposed language for the policy allows for a number of different technologies, and the County may change the methods of public comment as they see what works and what doesn’t work.

The proposed recommendation for the April 14 County Commission meeting is that they will set up a phone line with a recorded message giving instructions, including warnings about the 2-minute and 30-minute limits. Torres said that any recorded comments that are not played during the meeting will be part of the public record. The Chair (Robert Hutchinson), at his discretion, can skip the rest of messages when they pass 2 minutes or are deemed irrelevant, “scandalous,” or repetitive. (These are the same reasons the Chair can cut off public comment under existing rules.)

One open-ended public comment period with the same time limitations, but on any topic, can be added at the Chair’s discretion, and the total time can be extended at the Chair’s discretion.

Torres and Hutchinson believe that using a telephone as a method for public comment has the lowest learning curve.

All commission votes will be conducted in a roll-call fashion instead of the voice vote commonly used at in-person meetings. 

Some of their rules about which topics must be considered at evening meetings will be suspended during this time. They are delaying as many controversial topics and quasi-judicial proceedings as they can.

Hutchinson said the way he envisions this is that the commission will make a motion and discuss it, then the phone lines will open up. Everybody who wants to call in will do so in the next 5 minutes or so, then Hutchinson will begin playing the messages. 

Hutchinson also said the public should understand that the best way to reach the commissioners is via email, even during meetings. He said he watches his phone throughout the meetings. He recommended that each commissioner have two devices during meetings, one for the Zoom meeting and one for reading emails, documents, etc.

Hutchinson said, “We love to get messages that say we’re doing great; we even like to hear about those that say we’re doing bad, but actually, what we really need are suggestions on what we need to fix or change or whatever. I hope people don’t waste a lot of time just with pure criticism or pure praise without giving us something useful to work with.”

Comments can be emailed to bocc@alachuacounty.us.