County council looks to limit ‘abusive’ public comments

“Abusive comments” from some members of the public have the Clark County Council considering whether to change the public comment portion of its meetings.

The issue arose recently after one caller, who often joins council meetings remotely, accused County Manager Kathleen Otto of being a socialist and Marxist (which are competing ideologies), complained about water rights being denied to a local farm (which is controlled by the state), said the county is following a United Nations “new world order,” and claimed President Joe Biden committed treason among many other things.

“I’m growing weary of people who call in, without a connection to the work being done, and have a tendency to use ‘unelected,’ then fill in the blank with adjectives that are not complimentary and adjectives that are totally and completely unnecessary,” Chair Karen Bowerman said at the council’s Aug. 16 meeting.

“I think that’s something we need to keep a close eye on and simply stop,” Bowerman added. “There’s no reason for labeling our staff in negative ways such as that.”

Currently, members of the public are given three minutes to provide comment during designated portions of the meeting. There can be multiple opportunities for public comment during a single meeting, however comments are typically limited to a related activity such as a public hearing, agenda items or an ordinance or resolution.

Additionally, there is an open public comment period, which allows the public to comment on any topic, during the council’s regular Tuesday meetings. Public comments are not accepted during work sessions.

Bowerman said comments should be kept factual, rather than being based on opinion. She said she will investigate to see what steps the council can take to curtail comments that don’t comply with county policy.

The county already has a policy prohibiting these types of comments. The policy states, “Persons addressing the council will not make statements or remarks that concern: private activities, lifestyles, or beliefs of others, including individual county employees or elected officials; topics unrelated to the business of the county; or professional duties and performance of county employees or employees of its elected officials.”

The policy also prohibits conduct, statements or remarks that are defamatory to staff. The council chair can ask that person to leave the meeting or cut off their microphone if joining the meeting remotely.

Councilor Gary Medvigy noted limiting specific public comment will likely prove difficult.

“The First Amendment is a tricky thing. Certainly, it is a waste of all our time. It’s a waste of the constituents’ time that have to put up with these random comments. They’re attacks not only on each of us but on staff, the city council of Vancouver, the president of the United States,” Medvigy said.

Medvigy said steps taken by the city of Vancouver to limit public comment to a couple of times per month may have been too restrictive and wouldn’t suit the county’s needs.

“I would hate to have to limit public comments further because of these abuses,” Medvigy said. “And they are abuse.”

Bowerman said she understood why Vancouver took those steps but hoped the county council could come up with a better solution.

— Shari Phiel

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