In a 4-1 vote, with at-large member, Eddie Deane, voting “no,” the Greene County Board of Supervisors has adopted a new comment policy clearly intended to kill any dissent at public meetings.
Termed “atrocious!” by Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, the new rules closely follow the removal of “Matters from the Public” from Greene County’s July 28 agenda, by board chair, David Cox.
Tired of receiving criticism by County residents at public meetings—particularly, condemnation of a sweetheart interest-free loan to county administrator, John Barkley—Cox and Board cohorts, Jim Frydl, Bill Martin, and Davis Lamb, simply erased the right of any citizen to speak critically at board meetings by implementing the following:
- Relegating public comment until the end of the meeting (The public comment period will take place at the end of the session.)
- The Board chair may censor any speaker if he does not like the subject of speech. (Any person desiring to speak shall sign up prior to the meeting and write down the subject of their comments. The chair will decide whether the comments will be heard.)
- Citizens may not speak to anyone but the board chair. (Comments must be addressed only to the chair of the board of supervisors.)
- Citizens are prohibited from speaking on agenda items. (No citizen shall speak on any matter of business that is a subject on the board’s agenda for that meeting.)
- Citizen comment is ended after 15 minutes, no matter how many have signed up. (Each citizen comment period will end after 15 minutes, regardless of the number of people who sign up to speak. The chair may extend the time allotted for public comments.)
- Citizen comment subject-matter is severely restricted. (Comments must be directly related to the services, programs or policies of the County.)
- Citizens may not comment in any way on County personnel. (Persons speaking before the board will not be allowed to address pending litigation or county personnel related matters.)
- Citizens who violate these rules will have their speech rights abridged for the following meeting. (Any person who does not follow the rules listed above will be directed by the chair to end their comments immediately and will not be allowed to comment at the next scheduled meeting of the board of supervisors.)
Also contained in the rules is a deceptive, nonsensical reference to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act:
Persons speaking before the board will not be allowed to discuss…other matters exempted from public discussion under the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.
Rhyne forcefully critiques this clause:
First off, the public is not subject to FOIA and has no duty to self-censor themselves according to what they think could fall under an exemption of FOIA. Furthermore, FOIA exemptions are discretionary to begin with so just about everything they MAY talk about in closed session may nonetheless be discussed in open session. And even if they go into closed session, nothing prevents a member of the board from speaking about what was said in closed session (there may be an internal rule, but there is no statute that says these things must be kept confidential — that pesky First Amendment!).
(N.B. Greene County Administrator, John Barkley, recently employed a similar deceptive trick in withholding a copy of his employment contract from a Schilling Show FOIA request, citing a non-existent FOIA exemption. Under threat of suit, Barkley relented.)
Adding insult to the injury being visited upon their own citizens, Cox and Company begin their document with a twisted “Purpose” pre-amble in a pithless effort to justify the foolishness that follows:
The purpose of the Green County Board of Supervisors “Matters from the Public” section of the public meeting is to hear from our citizens about matters of relevance and importance that have not been heard before or of which members of Board of Supervisors are not currently aware.
In this statement the Board effectively limits public speech at meetings to anything that suits their whim, and they banish anything that does not. They also may be necessitating the hiring of a speech “relevance” czar, as such position does not presently exist in Greene County—and Mr. Cox may have a conflict of interest in making those determinations.
Citizens don’t like being told to STFU, but that’s exactly what David Cox, Jim Frydl, Bill Martin, and Davis Lamb have done. They all should resign immediately, and if Greene County Attorney, Ray Clarke’s fingerprints are on this contemptible document, he should be fired at once.
In the mean time, Greene County Citizens will be silenced and the Greene County Board of Supervisors (minus Eddie Deane) will be the laughing stock of open government advocates nationwide.
(Click to view the new Greene County policy document)