Council keeps it easy for citizens to comment

By Bobby Bryant, Editor, editor@newsandpress.net

Darlington City Council’s relaxed rules for letting citizens speak out during council sessions will stay the same, at least for now.

Minutes before starting a March 5 public hearing on new and tighter rules for public comments to council, Mayor Gloria Hines tabled a second and final vote on the changes – effectively killing the new rules unless someone puts the issue back on the agenda.

Council let the public hearing continue as planned, even though it was now a moot point. The 10 people who spoke during the hearing were commenting on a plan that already had been withdrawn.

“I did that at the last minute,” Hines said the next day of her action. “ … I’m going to let God handle it.”

Hines said council will continue to discuss and study the best way to let the public comment during meetings, but said she didn’t know if or when it would again come before council.

“We are going to discuss it. … I don’t mind it staying as it is,” said Hines, who plans to run for a second term as mayor.

When council gave the plan initial approval Feb. 12, Hines argued that it had to be passed for the good of the city. “I have noticed for the past year that several comments that have been made by citizens and others have become personal and very offensive,” Hines told council last month. “ … These comments have gotten out of hand and must cease at once if we are to move Darlington forward.”

But since then, some residents have complained, especially on Facebook forums, that the plan’s real goal was to stifle anyone who disagreed with council. The plan would have banned “personal attacks” on the mayor, council members or city staff, would have reduced residents’ speaking time from five minutes to three, and would have required citizens to sign up six days in advance with the city manager if they wanted to address council. The way it works now, residents simply have to sign up on a sheet of paper immediately before council meets.

Last week, when Hines thanked residents for their comments about the plan, she hinted that some of the complaints might have hit a nerve. “We do not want to silence anyone,” Hines said. “ … I am not trying to stop anybody from talking.”

All indications are that council’s course change on tightening its rules on public comments was not only done at the last minute, but at nearly the last second.

The ordinance changing the rules had already been OK’d on first reading. A public hearing on the new rules had already been set to take place March 5, just before the second and final vote on the ordinance. Agendas given to the news media just before council’s 6:30 p.m. meeting still listed a second, final vote on the new rules immediately after the public hearing.

And the customary “press packet” given to the News & Press – a stack of papers providing background details on issues on the agenda – included a new, revised draft of the rules changes, but this version was never mentioned or voted on.

This now-defunct draft of the ordinance apparently was to have been the final version council was to have voted on March 5.

This draft fixed a problem that many critics of the original ordinance had pointed out – that the original plan said citizens must “meet with” the city manager to sign up to speak to council. That implied they had to see him in person.

The revised ordinance included in the press packet dropped the “meet with” language and simply said citizens must “e-mail or call” the city manager. It kept a requirement that citizens would have to sign up six days before a council meeting. It kept the three-minute rule for speaking time. It also kept the “no personal attacks” rule.

Here is the full text of this revised, but never used and never even discussed, rewrite of the ordinance included in the press packet:

“Citizens of Darlington wishing to appear before Council will e-mail or call the City Manager six days before a regularly scheduled monthly meeting giving their name and subject they want to address Council on. The Citizen will be placed on the agenda. A Citizen of Darlington may be someone that lives in the City or owns or operates a business in the City of Darlington.

“Each Citizen will have three minutes to address Council. No personal attacks on Mayor, Council, City Staff or Citizens will be allowed.

If a Citizen asks a question concerning an item on the agenda, if the answer can’t be given at the time asked, and more research is needed, then an answer will be provided by e-mail or regular mail within 10 business days of the next scheduled Council meeting.”

If the original ordinance had gotten a final OK, the changes it called for would not have been out of line with the way most city councils across the country operate. (Except for the language implying that residents must meet in person with the city manager to sign up, and that issue apparently would have been fixed in the revised version.)

And the public hearing council held March 5 on the original ordinance, which is now in limbo and may stay there?

A total of 10 people spoke at the hearing. Nine were totally against the rules change. One was not opposed to the idea, but asked council to use the same rules that Darlington County Council does.
Some of the comments from the hearing:

Linwood Epps told council, “We should not have to go to (City Manager) Howard (Garland) six days ahead of time to speak to council. … Leave it like it is.” Another speaker called it “a foolish and insulting idea.” Another quoted from a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. and said things like the “six days in advance” rule were pointless.

Resident George Knapp asked council whether giving speakers a mere five minutes, as council has traditionally done (and will continue to do), had ever bogged down council’s work. Businessman Curtis Boyd, who plans to run for Darlington mayor, also spoke against the new rules.

In other business at last week’s meeting, council finalized the sale of a total of 22 acres of city-owned property for a total of $187,000, an economic-development deal code-named “Project Peach.” One new detail emerged in this final round of votes on the tracts being sold: The buyer is Georgia-Pacific. What’s planned for the property remains unknown.

Council also voted to rename the Old Darlington Fire Station – the home of the city’s antique fire engine, Our Pat – for the late Jim Stone, a longtime fire chief who worked with the Darlington Fire Department for 50 years.

Also, Mayor Hines handed out awards to people and groups aiding the city’s efforts to be “a little more magical” this past Christmas. Hines recognized the work of DSI Metals Inc., which delivered the city’s Christmas tree to the Public Square; Curtis Boyd, who helped string up lights around the Courthouse; Bill Moore Jr., who built the drum base for the tree; Signs Plus Systems, which donated staff and trucks to set up and take down the tree; the Darlington Fire Department, which aided Signs Plus; and the Darlington Garden Club, which bought the Christmas tree.

Author: Rachel Howell

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