The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Local News

March 29, 2014

Greenbrier County commission’s comment policy again draws protests

LEWISBURG — The Greenbrier County Commission’s attempt to promulgate regulations for public comments at its meetings was excoriated yet again Tuesday.

Opponents of the proposal presented oral and written protests to the one-page list of regulations and even obtained signatures from three candidates — including incumbent commission President Karen Lobban — on pledges “to protect West Virginia Code and the people’s right to comment at public meetings.”

The pledge was circulated by Lloyd Burns, who read from its preamble, telling the audience at Tuesday’s regular commission session, “You may be aware that there are plans afoot in the Greenbrier County Commission to restrict, censor or eliminate the public’s right to comment at county commission meetings.”

Burns reminded those gathered for the meeting that the county’s plans to raise 911 telephone land line fees were recently defeated following a similar public outcry.

The proposed public comment regulations include requirements that those desiring to speak at commission meetings sign in prior to the meeting, identify themselves when they approach the podium, address comments to the commission as a whole, be “courteous in their language and presentation” and refrain from personal attacks and discussions of “matters deemed to be ‘executive session’ issues.”

The proposed regulations also bar “debate and dialogue” between the public and officials and forbid “clapping, booing or any other form of support or nonsupport.” Another provision codifies the commission’s right to have security “remove ... from the building” any person not following the guidelines.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Commissioner Woody Hanna proposed an alternative to the roster of regulations, saying he prefers to adopt a comment form that people with issues they want to air before the commission would fill out several days prior to a public meeting. That would allow the commission time to “look into” the issues, he said.

“I thought we would be more proactive on these concerns that people bring before us,” Hanna said.

Even before she signed Burns’ pledge, Lobban indicated she did not support the regulatory push.

“I think we ought to leave it alone, and let people come in and say what they have to say,” she said.

County resident David Whitt strenuously objected to any attempt to restrict or regulate comments.

Whitt and Commissioner Michael McClung engaged in some verbal sparring, when McClung asked Whitt, “Has anybody here tried to silence you?”

Whitt responded, “You might.”

Whitt also provided the media with copies of a letter he sent to Lobban, outlining his objections to the proposed regulations, coupled with pointed criticisms of McClung, whom he accused of being “pompous, arrogant and condescending.”

In his letter, Whitt wrote, “To question and address our government at all levels, and to question it hard, is not only a right, but a duty we acquire with exercise of freedom and liberty. To examine the beliefs, motives and actions of representatives is a good maintenance program for responsible government.

“Government officials who cannot withstand hard questions ... should get out. If they persist in trying to restrict or muzzle the public, they should be driven out.

“Has any citizen seriously unsettled the comfort zones or the local schemes of the commission with fire and riot, or was it simply by speaking before them at a public meeting?”

The commissioners had tabled the proposed regulations during a similarly contentious March 11 meeting to allow the prosecuting attorney to review the proposal. The issue was not taken off the table for a vote Tuesday.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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