Public comment rules vary throughout Newton

Editor’s note: This article is part of an occasional series examining how local governments provide access to area residents under Georgia’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws.

COVINGTON — When it comes to publicly addressing local officials at board meetings, the rules vary among Newton County municipalities.

The public comments portion is a mandated agenda item that gives taxpayers an opportunity to voice concerns or shed light on topics they deem important. It wasn’t until 2005 when the General Assembly enacted S.L. 2005-170 (H 635), which requires city councils, boards of county commissioners and local boards of education to provide at least one period of public comment each month at a regular meeting of the board.

In the city of Covington, citizens are required to sign in before the City Council meeting in order to speak during the public comments portion, which is typically listed under the agenda item, “new business.” However, Mayor Ronnie Johnston gives an opportunity to speak for anyone who may have not known to sign in.

Individuals are allotted five minutes to speak or 10 minutes for a group. Those who have an item on the agenda for discussion or action are allowed an unlimited timeframe, Covington City Clerk Audra Gutierrez said.

City of Porterdale’s public comments rules of procedure are similar to Covington’s, but public comments come at the end of each meeting.

Mayor Arline Chapman said five minutes are given, but if a citizen offers an engaging discussion she doesn’t mind allowing extra time to the individual.

“I’m not sitting there with a timer, if comments go seven minutes, as long as they’re being civil and courteous, I think I’m very willing to give anyone a few extra minutes to speak,” Chapman said.

Chapman also gives the public an opportunity to give comments during Porterdale’s work sessions.

“The way our system works, we do all the hashing out of issues in our work sessions. I don’t let the public interrupt in a debate mode, but let them if we’ve come to a somewhat consensus,” Chapman said. “I always want to give someone a chance to voice their thoughts because we need to hear what the public has to say. We serve them.”

Citizens who attend county meetings will be allotted exactly three minutes to address the Board of Commissioners.

After the chairman and county manager report, Chairman Keith Ellis asks anyone who would like to speak to line up to his left and they are asked to state their name and address for the record.

Ellis said since he’s become chairman, he’s adjusted the agenda in order to have public comments before any votes are taken.

“We want public involvement, regardless of what citizens may think. If they feel an agenda item is important, they have the time to talk about it,” Ellis said. “I also host a Chairman’s Chat session on the Monday before every Tuesday meeting from 3-5 p.m. for citizens to come to my office and discuss anything on the agenda.”

Mansfield’s ordinance also designates three minutes for each public commenter. Citizens can choose to discuss any topic, whether it’s on the agenda or not, for the three minutes. Mansfield City Clerk Jamie Ruark, who has been with the city for about two years, said the council decided a few months ago to allow residents discuss any topic instead of restricting their comments to what was on the agenda.

Citizens interested in commenting at Newborn’s City Council meetings are given five minutes to direct any remarks to the Council, but must wait until the end of the meeting after any old or new business has been discussed, according to Newborn City Clerk Elisa Rowe.

In Oxford, it’s a rare occasion to have a citizen speak at a City Council meeting, according to City Manager Bob Schwartz. But a public comments item is placed on the agenda and citizens are given three to five minutes.

“We don’t often have many people attending so the public comments are more informal,” Schwartz said. “During the meeting the mayor asks if anyone has any comments. People don’t have to sign in, we just ask citizens to state their name and address so everyone knows who everyone is.”

While public comments rules of procedures vary at each meeting, the purpose remains the same: a chance for citizens to be vocal on local items.