BRISTOL, Va. — Members of the public wishing to address the Bristol Virginia City Council will now have to, in some cases, wait until near the end of meetings for that opportunity.
That’s because on Tuesday the council voted 5-0, on second reading, to shift a segment of public comment regarding non-agenda items from its traditional spot near the start of meetings to near the end.
This change will not impact the public’s ability to address the council about individual resolutions or ordinances which appear on each agenda, nor regularly scheduled public hearings.
Another change moves closed sessions, which exclude the public and news media, to follow public comment later in meetings.
The change came, in part, after large numbers of people on each side of the abortion debate attended a series of City Council meetings last fall and earlier this year. Many speakers from each side addressed the council, which already imposes a three-minute time limit per individual.
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On more than one occasion, the public comment segment for an issue not on a council agenda lasted more than an hour and was limited to 30 minutes at two other meetings.
“Whenever the City Council is meeting, it’s essentially a business meeting. We have to handle the business of the city,” Mayor Neal Osborne said Wednesday. “We started getting bogged down in a very large amount of public comment from people who don’t live in the city.
“So I reached out — several months ago — to localities, people I know, mayors of other cities, big cities, small cities, county boards of supervisors and asked how they handled it,” he said. “They gave me 20 different ways they all handled it but what came up a lot was limiting it to only residents, limiting as to time or the location on the agenda where public comment falls.”
The council experimented this spring, moving public comment to the end of the agenda at one meeting and limiting time on a couple of occasions.
“We put it at the end so we can finish the business of the meeting and then devote full attention, once we’ve gotten everything else out of the way, to whatever is being said in non-agenda public comment,” Osborne said. “We’ll still have the ability to limit the amount of time to keep speakers on track and delivering their message.”
While there was no discussion prior to Tuesday’s vote, there was some during first reading at the May 9 meeting.
“I like having public comment at the beginning,” Councilman Michael Pollard said at the prior meeting. “Even though they may not believe it’s related to an agenda item, what they’re saying may be related to an agenda item. I understand sometimes we’ve had rather lengthy public comment — and the intent of this is so we can get business done.”
Pollard later said he could go along with the shift since the public could continue to comment on agenda items.
Councilman Anthony Farnum said he liked tackling the agenda first, especially for people who came for an item early in the agenda.
“Hopefully this works out,” the mayor said. “People will still have the opportunity to say what they want to say, we’ll be able to get the business of the city done and hopefully get some of these city employees who have to be at the meeting outside their normal working hours to let them go.
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