Surfside Beach replays Darlington’s ‘public-comment’ fight

By Bobby Bryant, Editor, editor@newsandpress.net

Ever have a family feud over an odd problem that you’re sure no one else has ever fought about?

And then you hear that another family nearby is having the same feud over the same thing?

You might feel a little relieved: It’s not just us! We’re not alone!

I felt sort of relieved when I heard that the Town of Surfside Beach in Horry County, population 4,400, just had a fight over some of the same issues – how the public can talk back to council – that Darlington City Council grappled with from early February to early March.

Saying that citizens were getting too personal and too offensive in the time set aside at each meeting for public comments to council, Darlington Mayor Gloria Hines proposed having citizens sign up to speak with the city manager six days in advance, limiting citizens’ comments to three minutes (down from five), and banning “personal attacks” on the mayor, council members or city staffers.

The plan immediately got an initial OK from City Council, but many Darlington residents saw an attempt to stifle their opinions, and after a month of complaints, Hines withdrew the proposal just before a public hearing and a final vote. The city is staying with its relaxed rules for public comment – you just sign up on a sheet of paper a few minutes before the council meets and you get five minutes.

If you thought that sort of citizens-vs.-council conflict was a rarity, only a month after Darlington finished its public-comment battle, Surfside Beach started its own fight over the same issues and for the same reasons, and seems to have wound up with pretty much the same result.

Surfside Beach Town Council last week tried to do almost exactly what Darlington’s plan would have done.

The Surfside council proposed cutting citizens’ speaking time from five minutes to three. It proposed having citizens sign up six days in advance with the town clerk. It proposed a ban on personal attacks against the mayor, council or staff, on calling any individuals by name, on using profanity and on “disruptive” comments.

(Surfside also wanted to cut its council meetings from two a month to one, and wanted to move up their meetings from 6:30 p.m. to 5:30.)

And guess what happened?

Just as in Darlington, Surfside’s proposals were berated on the Internet. On one Facebook page devoted to Surfside people, places and things, one resident sounded the alarm: “Freedom of Speech is in jeopardy at this Tuesday’s Surfside Beach Town Council Meeting. … What a sleezy (sic) way to silence the taxpayers of this town. … Residents please be aware and attend the MEETING and VOICE your opinion while you still can. BE there at 6:30 on Tuesday, April 9.”

Florence-based WBTW-TV apparently was the only area television station that covered the April 9 meeting, and if the (Myrtle Beach) Sun News newspaper had a reporter there, I couldn’t find the story on their website. Listen to some of the Surfside citizens’ comments as reported by WBTW and consider how they follow the criticisms of Darlington residents who opposed the changes here:

— “Some of you I voted for are horrible and I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed I’ve ever known you.”

— “When you say, ‘I will serve the people,’ and (that) you like transparency, you’re blinding us all.”

Surfside council members said they were just looking for ways to make things more professional.

“We have to be able to control our business and that’s all we’re trying to do,” councilman Bruce Dietrich was quoted as saying in WBTW’s coverage. “We’re not trying to quiet you or burden you.” And Surfside Mayor Bob Childs: “If it were handled more like a business meeting, none of this would ever come up.”

And, just as in Darlington, the issue was set aside, at least for now. The Surfside council didn’t vote on the ordinance; it has been delayed until council can hold a workshop to talk about it in more detail, said Surfside Beach Town Clerk Debra Herrmann.

Good luck with that, Surfside. You’re going to need it.

Author: Rachel Howell

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