Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Personal attacks are out, and a requirement for people to say which county they live in before addressing the Clayton County Board of Commissioners is in, after the commission approved a new public-comment policy, by a 3-2 vote on Tuesday.
Supporters of the policy said it was needed to stop members of the public from using the public-comment period of commission meetings as an opportunity to launch personal attacks against commissioners and their relatives.
The people opposed to the measure, however, criticized the new policy as an infringement on the public's freedom of speech.
In the end, Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph, and Commissioners Sonna Singleton and Gail Hambrick voted in favor of the policy, while Chairman Eldrin Bell and Commissioner Michael Edmondson voted against it. Bell, who agreed to such a policy at a commission retreat a week-and-a-half ago, said he changed his mind after the addition of a requirement for speakers to identify their county of residence.
"I want civility as much as anybody, but when they changed the language of the policy to require people to tell us what county they live in, that just sounds, to me, [like] limiting what the citizens can say, and that's troubling," Bell said.
County Attorney Michael Smith told commissioners they could legally make requirements of speakers, such as requiring them to give their address and county of residence before addressing the commission, as long as it was a "reasonable" requirement.
"You can make certain restrictions, but you can't go into content-based [restrictions], unless you do it on a very narrow basis, meaning that you won't exclude somebody simply because they have come to certain beliefs, or something that you oppose," Smith said.
Bell said that despite the personal attacks that have been launched against commissioners during past public-comment sessions, members of the public were entitled to speak their minds at commission meetings.
"I get as much abuse as anybody," he said. "I get blamed for everything. Even on the passing of my mother, they came up talking about my mother, and it hurt my feelings, but they have a right to say what they want to say. How civil do we want us to be -- all of us?"
Vice Chairman Ralph said the attacks on relatives of commissioners was one of the reasons why the policy was drafted. "I know when we spoke about this at the retreat, the issue of the comments made about the passing of your mother were raised," he told Bell. "And, that was part of the rationale for drawing this up, and the need that you expressed at that time to make sure public meetings were civil."
The idea of creating the policy was brought up at the retreat by Commissioner Hambrick, not Bell.
One public speaker at the meeting, Vivian Baldwin, thanked the commission for approving the policy, and said she felt "uncomfortable" sitting at commission meetings, and listening to other people make "demeaning comments" about public officials. Baldwin, however, did not say which county she lived in during her public comments, as required by the policy, and no one corrected her on that matter.
"Public comment is not a time for attacks on public officials," Baldwin said. "People can make their wishes known at the ballot box during the next election, or make an appointment with their commissioner for personal issues ... Public comment should be made relative to issues that would improve the quality of life for the citizens of Clayton County."
Still, some people said some of the requirements laid out in the policy went against free speech. "I don't think it is the spirit of public speaking," Commissioner Edmondson said. "I think this board should reconsider."
Riverdale resident, Alita Knox, criticized commissioners for approving the policy, claiming they "did not have a problem dragging other people through the mud, scandalizing their names, or having a public lynching" in the past.
Knox was removed by the county commission from her position as a commissioner of the Clayton County Housing Authority in January, over an issue concerning her allegedly not turning in travel receipts in a timely manner.
Knox, however, said she was really removed because she raised questions, last year, about housing authority funds used by Commissioner Hambrick, to pay for security at a private party. Hambrick has denied Knox's claim.
"We, the people of Clayton County, are covered under the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees us freedom of speech," Knox told commissioners. "You, the board of commissioners, are trying to further suppress this freedom. You already limit the time we can speak. You were elected to represent the citizens of Clayton county. At this time, I am ashamed to say you are my representatives."