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Cornelius News

Sometimes free speech comes three minutes at a time

April 3. By Dave Vieser

Some large rezoning hearings, coupled with state-imposed COVID-19 gathering rules, have put pressure on Cornelius regarding speaking at public hearings.

The primary concern is that comments from individual citizens are limited to three minutes, while there are no limits on developers.

Huntersville has already done something about it, adopting limits on how long developers may speak. In a new Town Board policy adopted in April, petitioner presentations at rezoning hearings are now limited to 15 minutes, while individual public comments remain capped at three minutes.

Whether change will eventually come to Cornelius remains to be seen, but the imbalance between comments by applicants/developers and individual citizens can be felt in real time.

Applicants time: Unlimited

For example, at the second public hearing on the Alexander Farm Property development this past September, the applicant spoke for 50 minutes. Individual residents were allotted three minutes.

Gilroy

More recently, former Commissioner Dave Gilroy was cut off during comments on a sensitive land use plan change. He had attended the meeting to make in-person comments accompanied by some visuals but the town had technical issues, and, even with an extra minute granted by Mayor Washam, he was not allowed to complete his comments.

Gilroy, clearly not pleased, asked if there were any other speakers waiting as he left. There were none and he marched out.

Of course, as a practical matter, meetings could stretch into the wee hours if time allotments were unlimited.

Changes in the public hearing procedures would need to come from each local town board, as they have the sole authority to establish guidelines, rules and regulations for public comments.

Time limits: Local decision

Three minutes appears to be common practice, not a statewide law.

Individuals can comment at two public hearings, as well as the initial community meeting where projects are introduced to the public. Multiple people can speak on various aspects of the same topic, given a coordinated effort, so public comment could actually exceed the developer.

Grant

Still, there is not an established time limit for applicants. “They are provided with an appropriate amount of time to present their project and this may vary depending upon the project itself,” Town Manager Andrew Grant said.      

Mayor Pro Tem Denis Bilodeau said while it’s important for the applicant to get all the facts out on the table, “we can be flexible with the three minutes if there are only a few citizens requesting time before the Board.”

He pointed out that he reads every emailed comment thoroughly.    

Since last spring, North Mecklenburg towns and Mooresville have permitted citizens to email comments which will be read at the meeting. The problem is that these comments also carry a three-minute time limit.

They are read by staff members who may have various tempos for reading.      

At the April 19 Cornelius Town Board meeting, some of those emails were stopped at the three-minute mark.

North Carolina local government law

160A-81.1. Public comment period during regular meetings. The council shall provide at least one period for public comment per month at a regular meeting of the council. The council may adopt reasonable rules governing the conduct of the public comment period, including, but not limited to, rules (i) fixing the maximum time allotted to each speaker, (ii) providing for the designation of spokesmen for groups of persons supporting or opposing the same positions, (iii) providing for the selection of delegates from groups of persons supporting or opposing the same positions when the number of persons wishing to attend the hearing exceeds the capacity of the hall, and (iv) providing for the maintenance of order and decorum in the conduct of the hearing. The council is not required to provide a public comment period under this section if no regular meeting is held during the month. (2005-170, s. 3.)

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