From Friday’s Democrat: Public’s right to comment stirs heated debate

Bryant ThigpenSuwannee Democrat Live Oak — About 100 people attended the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners meeting Tuesday night to voice their concerns about the proposed medical waste incinerators, however, there was much debate as to if they would even get that opportunity.

County Attorney Jimmy Prevatt began the meeting by explaining a new law passed by the Florida Legislature that took effect Oct. 1, stating the board must allow the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard before the board takes action on a particular item. However, it is the board’s discretion when public comments will be heard. Prevatt also told the audience their comments must be related to the matter at hand.

When can the public speak?

There was much debate on when public comments will be allowed to be heard. Chairman Wesley Wainwright made his intentions known to only allow public comments at the beginning of the meeting, and during any additional agenda items.

“It is my desire on public comments to allow, as the State Legislature has indicated, you can speak on any agenda topic at the beginning of the meeting,” Wainwright said. “These agendas go out and the public is aware of it or has access to it just like the commissioners do. We have phones. We have email. There’s plenty of time that you have an opportunity to prepare for the meetings just like we do and you can state your case at the beginning of the meeting, on agenda items only.”

He continued, “This is the board’s decision to make. It’s my desire to have public comments at the beginning of the meetings, allow for public comments during additional agenda items, and that’s it. I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings.”

Prevatt, along with Wainwright and Commissioner Clyde Fleming suggested public comments be held at the beginning of the meeting.

“It (Florida Statutes) says the board can set the rules and policies. The board wants to now be able to address, if it’s on the agenda, they want to hear everything about it, so let’s start it offright with public comments, so we can go right down the list of things you commented on,” Prevatt said.

Bo Hancock, a Suwannee County resident and faithful attender of the meetings, said he is against public comments at the start of the meeting.

“I like the way we have been doing it. Things come up during discussion that I have questions on, and in the past we’ve been able to come up and ask our questions and get answers. You put everything at the beginning, you’ve excluded the public. After the public comment time, and what you’ve said, is you’re not going to hear from the public anymore…we can leave,” Hancock said. “I think the way we had it was a more open and transparent government.”

Wellborn resident Wendell Snowden expressed his concerns to the commissioners.

“A few months ago we had this same discussion with not as many people in the room and it got quite heated with the few people that we had,” Snowden said.

Snowden recalled when the board previously tried to move public speaking to the beginning of the meetings, the board agreed to put it back the way it was, with public speaking at the end and folks could get up and talk on any item they want.

“We all live here, you guys are here because we elected you. We’re here because we’re concerned about the county and what goes in the county, because we live here. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I believe these people are giving up their time to be here tonight,” Snowden said.

Silencing medical waste facility comments

At a recent meeting, the board voted to allow businesses to locate at the catalyst site “by-right” without having to go through the public hearing process. Resident Lori McCraney addressed the board and asked if she could bring up a specific item during public comments regarding the board’s decision to waive the public hearing requirement for prospective companies.

“Will I be allowed to address that specific item at the end of this meeting during public comments?” McCraney asked.

The crowd responded with a resounding “yes”, however, the decision was up to Wainwright.

“It is the chair’s discretion. I don’t particularly want to,” Wainwright said. He went on to say she could address the matter if it was the wishes of the board.

“I don’t mind hearing your comment (about the by-right decision),” Commissioner Jason Bashaw said.

There was still some lingering confusion over when public speaking would be held at the beginning or end of the meeting, and if individuals could speak concerning the waste

“Again, it’s the chair’s discretion. I don’t particularly want to hear about it tonight,” Wainwright said, just before the audience got loud with their frustrations.

“I would rather not have it (public comments) as we go along. I would rather have it at the beginning or at the end,” Wainwright said. The crowd got furious again, with people over-talking one another. McCraney, who started the Facebook page “Suwannee County Says ‘No’ To Toxic Waste,” asked the board if they (public) would be permitted to speak about the medical waste incinerators, since it will be at the catalyst site.

“We may or may not discuss the catalyst site? If you decide not to discuss it tonight, since it’s on the agenda, can we speak on it tonight?”

McCraney asked Prevatt. McCraney was referring to agenda item number 12, which stated, “Discuss, with possible Board action, any items requiring action regarding Catalyst Site.” Integrated Waste Management Systems is seeking to locate medical waste incinerators at the catalyst site.

Prevatt replied, “If there is something to be pending and it has to do with the catalyst site this evening, you can speak on it.”

Chairman Wesley Wainwright inserted, “On that particular item, each time we come up to that one, I always defer that to the county administrator to see if he has any specific topics concerning the catalyst site, and if there are none tonight, then there won’t be any public comment on it.”

Wainwright continued, “Obviously most everybody is here about the incinerator. For your benefit, I’ll allow the administrator to declare what he can, if anything, we need to talk about on the catalyst site. According to State Statutes, we have to make sure you have an opportunity to speak before we take any action.”

“Would you allow us to speak on this tonight?” McCraney asked again.

This time, Wainwright replied, “If Mr. Harris has a topic concerning the catalyst site in regards to the incinerator, yes.”

“Mr. Harris, would you address that question please,” McCraney asked County Administrator Randy Harris.

“I will report that I have not seen any application at all from this proposed incinerator facility. I don’t have any applications or documents, anything from any of these incinerator people. I know there’s a lot of interest in speaking on this when it does come before the board. And when anything of that nature comes to me or my office, it will be forwarded to the county commission to be considered in a regular meeting. I have nothing to speak to on that particular item that’s listed on the agenda,” said Harris.

However, that did not keep the people from speaking their mind.

First attempt to limit public comments

Shortly after the commissioners changed their meeting time in May 2013 – from 9 a.m. the first Tuesday of the month and 4 p.m. the third Tuesday of the month, to 6 p.m. each meeting – Wainwright removed staff reports from the agenda to expedite the meetings, but he also moved public comments to the beginning of the meeting and announced the public would only be allowed to speak during heated discussions.

Citizens were outraged then by this move because they were asked to comment on something that had not been discussed yet.

Commissioner Ricky Gamble asked that comments return to the end of the meetings and to allow people to speak during the meeting. A compromise was made and public speaking returned to its original format.

The decision

Gamble told Wainwright he would like to continue allowing the public to comment on items as they are addressed. His comment was welcomed by a round of applause from the audience. Bashaw said they have always allowed public comments and would always continue to allow the public to be heard. Wainwright and Fleming wanted public comments to be heard at the beginning of the meeting. Commissioner Phil Oxendine said it didn’t matter to him.

Consensually, the board agreed to allow public comments to be heard as the items come up on the agenda.

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