Clackamas County chair suggests new limits on public comment
At the suggestion of Chair Tootie Smith, Clackamas County might examine ways to limit the public comments during the Board of County Commissioners' Thursday business meetings.
Last week, Smith told her fellow county elected officials that she feels a recent spike in participation by members of the public during open-comment periods stems from political pressure surrounding calls for the resignation of Commissioner Mark Shull following the publication of his racist, xenophobic and transphobic comments.
Smith doubled down Tuesday, Feb. 9, stating that Oregon statute provides that the business of the county board should be purely nonpartisan, and that the wave of comments made in recent weeks regarding Shull's statements do not fall within the purview of the board's business.
"I'm going to try to maintain our integrity with some people who have found what's going on disgusting, and it's keeping them away from making comments on what we're doing, and I find that very sad," Smith said. "Sometimes the loudest and most cruel voices tend to have a silencing effect on a majority of people who would like to call in and make a comment."
County Commissioner Sonya Fischer disagreed.
"My concern is that an effort to limit public comment because certain members of the commission may not like the comments that are being made does not help us with our goal of transparency and public trust and government," Fischer said. "I do not think the comments asking for Mark Shull to resign are political in nature, but are a concern addressing the larger view of many constituencies in our county."
Smith argued that in the age of virtual technology, residents of Clackamas County have more opportunity to engage with their county government than ever before including email, social media and letters to the editor of publications.
"I would disagree with Commissioner Fischer in that many of these comments stemming from my very first business meeting on Jan. 7 have been indeed political in nature," Smith said. "We serve the greatest good for Clackamas County citizens at these business meetings when we conduct the business of the citizens in the initiatives, codes and authorities brought to us by our departments for approval. Aside from that, I think we need to have our citizens focus on what they think the course of Clackamas County is going."
Smith said she plans to propose changes to the public comment period, but didn't suggest when that might take place. She said those changes might include moving public comment from the beginning of the board's regular Thursday business meetings to the end, limiting the total comment period to 30 minutes and shortening the time per speaker from three to two minutes.
"I think anybody can make a comment in two minutes if they desire," Smith said. "Additional words on the record, they can always submit that by email, make a telephone call, reach out to any commissioner for their personal comment on that."
Commissioner Paul Savas said he could go either way on moving comments from the beginning of meetings to the end, but noted that he sees the advantage of hearing the public comment on matters before the board discusses them in order to take those opinions into consideration as the board makes a decision. He also said that the board does need to be sensitive about the amount of time meetings are taking up or running long and suggested that the board might make the decision on the spot to limit public comment if time is wearing thin.
"My concern is that limiting (public comment) could have some negative impacts," Savas said. "There might be a lot of comments about a particular topic, and I know that the issue that is bringing a lot of comments are real and... it's painful. However, there are people that bring other issues that are important to hear that are not about Mr. Shull, that are about other things in the county that I want to hear about."
Savas said for those reasons, he believes the board should do its best to maintain public comment as is.
Cris Waller, the Clackamas County citizen who first brought Shull's comments to light, said Smith's proposals would harm everyone, not only those demanding Shull's resignation, but also all of those who wish to give input to the county in the only forum that allows public speech.
"Tootie Smith may want to silence us, but our voices are strong and united," Waller said.
Smith suggested that members of the board who aren't showing up in person — Savas, Fischer and Martha Schrader have continued to attend meetings virtually, by and large, due to the pandemic — don't understand what's going on in the board's hearing room at the Red Soils campus.
Smith said she would favor a system in which commenters were required to submit a card stating who they were, where they lived and what business they planned to comment on.
"We don't get that on the Zoom; we have no idea what type of bomb we're going to get. And I will say, it's much easier to be anonymous and faceless when we're deviating from the business of the Clackamas County government," Smith said. "I will maintain that this body needs to remain nonpartisan within the political pressures that are ravaging through our communities right now. I would like this Board of County Commissioners to be above that."
Fischer said that she agreed with Smith's suggestion the county implement some way of taking down the information of those giving public comment, not only so they could track them in the public record, but also so they can follow up on people's concerns directly.
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