Resolution would limit commissioners' comments

Alan Driver

A Resolution that would limit county commissioners to speaking for five minutes at a time while debating an issue has been referred back to a committee for further study.

Resolution 2104-01 would amend the standing rules of the Sumner County Commission by adding language that would limit commissioners’ comments to five-minute increments, “so that other commissioners in the queue will be allowed to timely express their stance on the topic at hand.”

The resolution also amends the rules by adding the phrase, “repetition of viewpoints already made should be limited.”

The amendment requires a two-thirds vote to pass and was debated at length during the April 19 County Commission meeting before a motion was made to send it back to committee.

The resolution was first brought up during a Legislative Committee meeting a week earlier where members agreed to move it on to the full commission without discussion.

“We’re not stating our opinion on it, we’re just passing it on,” said Legislative Committee Chairman Baker Ring.

During the debate on April 19, several commissioners – and a few citizens – said they opposed the limit, while others said it was needed in order to give all legislators a chance to be heard.

“I think we are starting down a slippery slope when we start this,” said District 8 Comm. Merrol Hyde of Hendersonville.

“I get weary going to meetings that go after midnight, but I chose to do this. I just rarely vote to cut off debate.”

Comm. Jerry Becker, who represents the 9th District in Hendersonville, said he agreed with amending the rules to discourage repetitious comments, but was not in favor of limiting leaders to speaking in five-minute increments. Becker made an amendment to strike that part of the resolution. His amendment failed 9 to 14.

District 1 Comm. Moe Taylor of Westmoreland said he thought the five-minute limit was directed towards him.

“Having an open and transparent government starts nowhere in this amendment. Nowhere,” he said.

Taylor pointed out that commissioners can – and often do — end debate when 16 members vote to agree to “call the question.”

“So we already have the rule in place [to end debate],” Taylor said. “This is to shut up and sit down certain people – and it’s just not right.”

District 11 Comm. Jeremy Mansfield agreed with Taylor.

“You’re censoring the people by not allowing proper debate in this chamber – and that’s just wrong,” said Mansfield. “This gag rule, censorship rule is already available, [you] can call the question.”

Mansfield asked about making an amendment that would eliminate commissioners’ ability to call for the question if Resolution 2104-01 passed.

Commission Chairman Scott Langford said that any change to the “call the question” rule would have to be heard first by the Legislative Committee.

3rd District Comm. Alan Driver of Bethpage said he didn’t agree with the argument that citizens’ voices would be limited by the rule change.

“We’ve stayed here several times past midnight and every citizen got to speak,” he said. “So we are not limiting citizens’ opportunity to speak. They can speak at every meeting.”

Citizens may address the County Commission on agenda items. They are limited to five minutes.

“I believe opposing opinions are good, however we have had issues with people taking up so much time,” Driver added. “Five-minute increments doesn’t mean they can only speak one time.”

Unless the question is called, Langford added.

District 4 Comm. Jerry Foster made an amendment to limit commissioners to two 10-minute speeches on any one particular topic. The motion failed for lack of a second.

Comm. Leslie Schell, who also represents District 4, said the legislation is intended to give all commissioners a chance to speak. Schell said she’s been in the queue before when the question was called, ending debate.

She urged commissioners to vote for the resolution.

“There are 24 commissioners and each 24 of us want to be able to speak,” she said.

10th District Comm. Caroline Krueger said that the issue is one of respect, and not about limiting free speech.

“No one’s freedom of speech is being taken away,” said Krueger adding she often asks questions of county employees before the meetings, rather than in the middle of them.

“It shouldn’t be a night full of gotcha moments on video,” Krueger noted. “That’s not what our meeting is supposed to be. Just have respect for one another so we can all get our five minutes in.”

Comm. Larry Hinton tried to amend the resolution in order to not allow a commissioner to call the question until every commissioner has had an opportunity to speak on an issue.

Again, Langford said that any amendment having to do with calling the question would have to go back to the Legislative Committee. Hinton made a motion to send the amendment back to the committee with the understanding that calling for the question would be re-evaluated. The motion passed 20 to 3 with Commissioners Krueger, Billy Geminden and Shellie Tucker voting no.

The county’s Legislative Committee meets next on May 10 at 5:30 p.m. in Room 112 of the Sumner County Administration Building, 355 N. Belvedere Drive in Gallatin.