Flexibility critical for input at public meetings
Rules provide guidance and control, and in that vein the Northumberland County commissioners are justified in establishing fresh guidelines for citizen input at public meetings.
But by setting a 2-minute time limit, as approved by a 2-1 vote on Tuesday, they walk a fine line of violating one of the underlying principles of a successful democracy: public comment, good or bad.
Conduct at commissioner meetings dating back to the fall is apparently the impetus for the new rules. It's been a contentious period, for sure, and Commissioner Chairman Vinny Clausi believed things were getting out of control. That there is now a fully detailed list of "rules for conduct and order" should help.
Municipalities statewide offer a wide range of time limits, and the Sunshine Act allows agencies to impose "reasonable" regulations on the conduct of meetings.
Two minutes may be reasonable in some circumstances, and unreasonable in others, but what is important with regard to time limits is that they be flexible. It is unreasonable to use a stop watch and cut off a member of the public who is in the midst of public comment on an issue of agency business.
We trust Clausi will stick to his word that he'll be flexible and allow more than the 2-minute limit as warranted. To his credit, he already did that at Tuesday's meeting.
We trust, too, that those approaching the board will do so with legitimate concerns and with respect for the process.
The ability - the right - of the public to address the government is a critical element of the First Amendment that cannot and should not be denied. Democracy is at its best when citizens feel free to express their concerns and criticisms, and no one should be denied that opportunity.