Augusta County leaders are, quite graciously, giving county residents a fourth minute to address them on the issues of the day at Board of Supervisors meetings.
Hold your applause, though.
You’d better not put your hands together and say anything, or they might have you removed.
“I think this is an infringement on our First Amendment,” said Wayne District Supervisor Scott Seaton, who made a motion at Wednesday’s BOS meeting to adjust the board’s meeting rules to remove the restriction on applause from the audience.
Everything else we have going on in the world, and our local government is spending its time on whether or not the handful of people who attend board meetings can clap their hands together, and maybe say “yay!” as they do so.
Welcome to Augusta County.
“I think socially acceptable applause is allowable free speech, if it doesn’t materially interrupt the function of the board, and applause does not intimidate, harass or threaten a speaker. I would like to have that removed from our statements about restricting applause,” said Seaton, whose effort to that effect failed in a 4-2 board vote.
The bigger issue of the two – everything is relative in Augusta County – was the limit in the board meeting rules on comments from members of the public.
The board would eventually vote 5-0, with Seaton abstaining, to give county residents a fourth minute to address the board on what’s going on in the world.
Seaton has been advocating for unlimited public comment time, again citing First Amendment considerations.
“Our government is slowly moving toward more transparency, though often too slowly, or sometimes going backward,” said Seaton, who, you may remember, was censured by the board last month, with the specific instance cited in the resolution being his actions around a March 20 BOS closed session that was used to discuss the resignation of Steven Morelli from the board.
Seaton has since said the discussion that the board had in the closed session should have been done in public session.
A recording that Seaton made of that meeting is the subject of a FOIA request by AFP that was denied by the county earlier this week.
AFP has filed a petition with Augusta County General District Court requesting a review of that denial.
The court has set a Sept. 5 hearing to review AFP’s petition.
With regard to the restriction on public comment, that move was made by the board last summer, with the BOS voting 5-2, with Seaton and Pastures District Supervisor Pam Carter dissenting, to impose a three-minute time limit.
Seaton, as he made a motion to remove the time limit entirely, said he thinks it is time for the county “to take a step forward” with respect to giving value to input from county residents.
“I think mature governments don’t have these time limits,” said Seaton, whose motion on that failed in a 5-1 vote.
Later in the meeting, the board voted to add a fourth minute, with Middle River District Supervisor Gerald Garber explaining the rationale there.
“I’ll probably take a little different view. I think if you go to that podium, or for that matter from up here, if you speak for 20 minutes, after about 10, nobody cares what you said, but they remembered how long you talked, so I think it’s a self-defeating thing,” Garber said.
“I support the concept of changing this, and my personal view is, I recognize the difference,” Garber said. “The rest of you, I think, what’s the old saying, give people enough rope, they’ll hang themselves? If you give them 20 minutes to the podium, everybody watching will understand they took 20 minutes, and they won’t like it.”
This is probably, at this point, a matter of semantics. The number of people who speak at board meetings every other Wednesday is almost a rounding error relative to the county’s population – the most recent census has Augusta County at 77,485.
An extra minute, 20 minutes, for a couple of people, five people, whatever, isn’t going to change the world either way.
“I think any of the time limits interfere with people,” Seaton said. “I think if we look at one minute, what are we asking for? So, when the person the one person who really violated, who really was excessive, and I admit I got a migraine one time when he was speaking, but that was one person there. For the most part, what’s that one minute? How many of the people here used up all their time? I think we’re creating a time limit when it’s really not abused.”