The Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted on June 22 to cut public comment from ten 3-minute slots to ten 2-minute slots. It also moved the period when citizens may make public comment to just before executive session.

The net effect of this change forces constituents to wait, sometimes for hours, before making their thoughts known to the board. For example, the August 16, 2022 meeting included zoning matters, each of which include their own separate applicant presentation, public comment, and applicant rebuttal speaking periods, often on multiple items related to the same project.

(Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Public comment finally took place about 9:10 p.m.—two hours and 40 minutes into the meeting, well after dinnertime and approaching many people’s bedtime. That in itself is a deterrent to public participation for many citizens. People who have to go to work, cook for their family, help their kids with homework and baths and bedtime, get to bed for an early shift, or who have health problems cannot reasonably be expected to sit for hours in order to address their elected officials in public.

(Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

The public comment period was followed by a nearly hour-long executive session, after which a vote of high public interest—to create an interim chief of staff position especially for Fire Chief Landry Merkison—was taken. (Notably, the county had no existing chief of staff position for which an interim would be needed.) The meeting did not adjourn until 10:26 p.m. The general public usually leaves when elected bodies go into executive session, often primed with a “goodnight,” not realizing that the public meeting has not officially ended until the body votes to adjourn it after reconvening from executive session.

The Clayton County Board of Commissioners, both present and past, has a long history of playing with the public comment period in response to public criticism. By moving the public comment period near the end of the agenda from its place near the beginning, citizens also are prevented from addressing the board in public about matters on the agenda before commissioners vote on those agenda items. This, in turn, removes citizens’ ability to speak publicly as part of the official meeting in a way that could convince their elected officials to vote one way or another.

This latest move also cynically orders citizens to stick to items on the agenda, preventing those citizens from proactive comment on matters up for a vote and attempting to silence them on other issues, particularly those which might reflect less favorably on officeholders on the dais. Of course, citizens are unable to comment on items on the next meeting’s agenda because that public document has not yet been published.

Any public comment period at any American government meeting is a mix of gadflies, cranks, and attention-seekers, as well as the earnest, the naive, the ignorant, the prepared, the unprepared, the educated, the uneducated, the entrepreneurial, the grifter, the pious, the godless, the meek, and the firebrand.

In other words, public comment not only looks like America, it is America.

(Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Public comment is the time set aside specifically for citizens to state, in public, before an audience and before cameras, whatever they want their elected officials to hear, face to face, eye to eye, person to person. It is the one place where elected officials cannot run and hide from a public reckoning with average citizens—or with the press, which also represents the citizens and which serves as a check on government abuse of power.

Any candidate for office must have the foresight to understand that there will be times when they will face criticism, some of it valid, some of it not, for whatever actions they take on behalf of voters. Politicians who lack a thick hide need to develop one if they are to survive as public servants. An elected official’s constituents, a term too often used loosely to mean “my fan club,” are all people who vote or live in their district—including and especially those with whom they disagree. Citizen critics are the canary of democracy in the coalmine of politics.

And every single one of those constituents deserves to be treated with respect by their elected representative, particularly in that representative’s official capacity during a public meeting. At minimum, they deserve eye contact and attentiveness in place of text messaging and snickering as if chambers were a high school cafeteria. They deserve not to have their questions silenced during online district meetings for constituents. They deserve to have their calls returned, their questions answered, and their comments taken seriously. They do not deserve public condescension and mockery in any case.

Officeholders are just that: temporary holders, not permanent owners, of the people’s office. Elections are not coronations. And elected officials who mistake the two are, in a democracy, subject to recall: the voter’s nuclear option for officeholders.

(Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Recall elections are rare, and should be in a healthy democracy. But a recall effort is a sign that a significant number of constituents are not satisfied to sit out a candidate’s remaining term. When elected officials salute the public with one finger, four other fingers always point back.

Politicians generally get more attention than the average citizen does, and politicians have access to wider platforms to get their messages across to the public. To level the playing field a bit, The Clayton Crescent presents a new feature, The People Speak, focusing on what citizens and voters in Clayton County have to say to county commissioners—or any other elected officials in the county, the municipalities, the school board, or other elected or appointed government body—during public comment periods.

When citizens approach the dais to seek help, to warn of problems in the community, or to offer correction, it is the wise elected official who accepts their messages—critical or not—with respect for this core tenet of democracy, just as they wish to be respected for their symbolism of their office.

Moving public comment to an inconvenient and toothless place on the agenda and cutting the time allotted by one-third may not violate the letter of the law, but it is not First Amendment-friendly. Georgia’s Sunshine Laws, which cover open meetings and open records, have been upheld time and again in favor of greater, not less, public access. The present situation, which takes away a significant chunk of the public’s time and places obstacles in front of those who would take part in open meetings as constituents, negatively impacts the ability of Clayton County’s citizens to hold their elected officials accountable through the public comment process.

Opinions expressed in The People Speak do not necessarily reflect those of The Clayton Crescent, its board, or its supporters.

The Clayton Crescent does not endorse political candidates and is nonpartisan. Our allegiance is to the First Amendment, to the public’s right to know what their elected officials are doing, and to holding those officials accountable for their actions. We pay special attention to abuses of power by those in elected office.

Robin Kemp is executive editor and CEO of The Clayton Crescent, which she founded in 2020. She has worked for Gambit, CNN, The Weather Channel, Clayton News, Henry Herald, and numerous freelance outlets....

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