The Knightdale Town Council decided at its summer retreat here Friday, July 22, to set a three-minute limit per speaker for public hearings at council meetings.
The decision to set a limit came after a rezoning hearing at the council’s last regular meting on a mixed-use project on Knightdale Boulevard lasted about an hour, with raucous applause after nearly every speaker.
The council also considered requiring that everyone who speaks sign up in advance, but decided against a hard and fast rule on that, although it already posts a sign-up sheet for public comment at each meeting. “I worry about a list,” council member Pete Mangum said, “if there’s a cut-off point and it’s handed to the mayor. I think we need to give every citizen that takes the time to come out an opportunity to speak.”
The council also decided that a staff member should be responsible for explaining the public hearing rules before each meeting and help the public sign up.
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The move comes after a change in state law that has increased the frequency of rezoning hearings. Development Services Director Chris Hills said the board has held more public hearings in the last three months than in the previous three years.
Commissioners were also concerned that allowing cheers could open the door to boos as well. “I don’t want people to feel bullied by the audience if they have a different opinion,” Mangum said.
The council also agreed that three minutes would not be the absolute cut-off point, especially if the speaker was in the middle of making a point. “You pose that three-minute rule,” Mayor James Roberson said, “keep in mind, most folks are not going to go by that three-minute rule, so they’ll probably go an extra two minutes. I think we need to find a better way to manage that piece.”
“I want to err on the side of letting someone complete their thought,” Mangum said. “Three minutes, cut you off – that’s wrong.”
Council member Mark Swan said he had a concern not as much about the time for each speaker, but speakers coming up more than once in the same hearing. Others said they were bothered when speakers continue to repeat points that have already been made. “Sometimes we’ve heard what there is to hear on a topic,” Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Chalk said, “and people keep coming back and forth, back and forth.”
The mayor would address those items in an introduction to each hearing, in which he would also explain the three-minute limit.
Chalk said that it should be made clear to the public at a hearing that even after the public hearing has been held and closed, the council members are still available by phone and email to hear concerns until it has voted. The council discussed having a station with their town business cards near the sign-up sheet to make it easier for the public to reach council members.
The council reached a consensus on the time limit after about 20 minutes of discussion at the retreat and it is to be put on the consent agenda for its meeting Monday, Aug. 1., for final approval.
Matt Goad: 919-829-4826