ELLIJAY, Ga. – Citizens Wishing to Speak is a staple section of Gilmer’s meetings for the Board of Commissioners as citizens repeatedly utilize the section of both the monthly work session and regular meeting. However, this week saw a change in that section, though it went unused in the county’s regular meeting on April 14, 2022.
Though much of the recent usage has been discussion over housing, zoning, and land use, the Citizen’s Wishing to Speak portion of the meetings have been used over the years for everything from discussions on beaver dams to the county’s rivers, trash collection, personal issues that residents’ have on their property, citizen input on ordinance changes, and more as Gilmer’s Board of Commissioners have continually allowed the section to continue free of restriction.
Just in the last year, this section saw a change as legal advisement saw the commissioners asking people not to discuss Zoning Requests in the county meeting as it doesn’t advertise itself as another hearing on the topics. Many times the county has allowed discussion on general zoning topics and the citizens desires, but they have often asked speakers to refrain from specific lots, requests, or debates over the Planning and Zoning Board’s rulings for those requests. Now, in April of 2022, another change has come to the section as Commission Chairman Charlie Paris announced in the county’s meeting that they would be introducing a time restraint.
Chairman Paris stated, “The Citizens Wishing to Speak has become very popular and that’s good. I want everybody to get up and say whatever they want to say. But we’ve had situations in the past where we’ve had maybe three or four people and they go on for 30 minutes, 40 minutes, and we sit her for two hours.”
Paris went on to add that the limit on speaking would be 10 minutes. He said that it wasn’t to censor or restrict speech, but to allow everybody to have opportunities to speak.
Paris said the limit for individual speakers would be 10 minutes. However, in the county’s regular meeting, no speakers approached the podium and the timer was not used. The county did have one speaker at its work session on April 13, 2022, but the board had not placed the time limit yet.
Each meeting, the board opens the Citizens Wishing to Speak section as Chairman Paris states, “Anyone that would like to speak on any topic.” However, the county has also not restricted citizens to just this section of the meeting as they continued to allow citizens to speak during agenda items as well. Typically, the discussion on those agenda items has seen each member of the board engage in discussion at times rather than listening without response. Neither Paris nor the Post Commissioners Hubert Parker and Karleen Ferguson mentioned any additionally restrictions to speaking other than the 10 minutes.
Comparing this to another major county board, the Board of Education also has limits set for citizens wishing to speak. Citizens must sign up to speak at the BOE’s regular meeting, but the Board invites anyone to speak at work sessions. Their time limit is set to 5 minutes and policy is for speakers to speak on a current agenda item. Additionally, the BOE states that Citizens Wishing to Speak is for the board to listen without response.
Continuing the use of the timer, the Board of Commissioners has typically used the continued implementation of changes in the meetings to modify and fine tune those changes. For example, as the board began requesting citizens not speak to zoning requests, the eventually moved Citizens Wishing to Speak to a point in t he meeting after zoning requests have been handled. So, it is likely that the board will fine tune the timer addition as well with details in response to arising questions like allowing citizens to speak multiple times in the meeting to different agenda items or other issues as they arise.