County board moves to enhance public input at meetings

Commissioners Bruce Martinson (L) and Jim Johnson
Commissioners Bruce Martinson (L) and Jim Johnson

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County commissioners revisited the issue of increased public input they began discussing on Jan. 4. Chair Jim Johnson said he wanted to formalize a system where members of the public can bring issues to the board, give input but keep the process orderly and not overly long.

Commissioner Jan Hall pointed to planning and zoning discussions earlier in the meeting where people directly concerned with an issue were asked to speak. County Attorney Tim Scannell said there were a couple of public involvement levels to be considered.

Scannell: You know, there are different categories of public comment, and apparently those people who spoke today were parties to what you were considering. It wasn’t public discussion, it wasn’t a public hearing. Again, you were asking for clarification from the person who was bringing it forward which was planning and zoning and the party who was affected by the decision. So, that might be a little bit different. And then, of course, when you have a public hearing, you still might want to hear from the party and you’re obviously going to hear from whoever’s bringing it forward, the department’s that bringing it forward. But, the question is, do you then redo the public hearing? I will be unequivocal about that. As far as I’m concerned, that is not the process that is supposed to be followed.

Commissioner Sue Hakes said when she was Grand Marais mayor, there was a public comment period prior to the regular meeting, and Commissioner Hall said that was also the general rule on other boards and committees she sat on. Scannell said to avoid distractions and disruptions the board might want to consider the same tactic.

Scannell: You don’t run into it in every meeting, but when you do run into it, it’s more where you have all of the sudden a free-for-all of public commentary on something for some reason, and they’re not parties. They have opinions, they don’t specifically have a right to the issue that’s being heard or considered by the board. And that’s where I was suggesting for those types of things you might want to block out that five, 10 or 15 minutes at the start and ask for comment. I see that as a two-pronged benefit, which is anybody can do it, and you may get information for something on your agenda or you may get something that will lead you to put something on the next agenda, or an agenda down the road.

Hakes added that she did not want a more structured approach to including the public actually seen as being more restrictive.

Hakes: I’ve been thinking about this, you know, since we had our meeting last week, and I think there’s a little bit of a misconception out there that we’re trying to limit, you know, the public’s access to us. And that, in fact, wasn’t my intention, and I am virtually positive that it wasn’t anyone’s intention. What I see as assigning a space, you know, either beginning, middle or end of the meeting for public input is a way to guarantee that a member of the public can come before us all at once in the same room to raise an issue about something that may or may not be on the agenda.

Commissioner Fritz Sobanja said he was afraid open ended public input would draw commissioners into the discussion and drag out the meetings.

Sobanja: That could happen, so it’s either comment, you say your thing, you shut up, you sit down. We don’t respond. We’ll say, “OK, we can do something about that.” Otherwise, the issues that we have that are here on the agenda and the practice that we have had by allowing input from the public at that point in time to enter into a discussion and I feel that that is way more—that is the crux of this job, is to enter into a discussion with people who have thoughts, who have ideas, who have sides, whether we agree with them or not, but to be allowed express their side of the thing during the point of the discussion while we sit back, suck all of this in, and then make a decision. Because our job is to make the decision; it isn’t to control who can say what and when. You know, it is up to the board chair, I feel, to monitor that discussion, to keep it under control and I feel real strongly about that.

Commissioner Johnson stressed that placing a comment period at the head of the agenda should be seen as a way to augment public input, because people could still speak to an issue they were a party to later in the meeting.

Commissioner Bruce Martinson suggested they add a comment period at the beginning of the agenda and that it be limited in length and that individual comments also have a limited length. He further suggested the comment period be given a six month trail and be reviewed at that time for its effectiveness.

Commissioners voted to adopt Martinson’s idea, with Sobanja abstaining.


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