Groups Question City's Limits on Public Comments
By Bill Hughes
PADUCAH - A free speech advocate and the leader of a local public policy group are questioning the motives of the Paducah City Commission, which passed an ordinance limiting comments at their meetings.

The ordinance passed Monday only allows comments that pertain to subjects that are on the agenda for that meeting, and also limits comments to three minutes. Commenters must sign up ahead of the meeting and indicate what they want to talk about.

Since the commission approved a resolution in 2017 that restricts use of some flags in the annual Veteran's Day parade, members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have attended and commented at almost every meeting, asking for a compromise that would allow them to carry the Confederate flag to honor soldiers from the Civil War, as they had in the past. Citizens have also commented at numerous meetings about the passage of a fairness ordinance in early 2018 and most recently, about the first-ever gay pride event held on August 24.

Gene Policinski of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute says the First Amendment guarantees the opportunity to speak to those who are elected to work for the people.

Policinski said, "Limiting that kind of comment completely to just agenda items seems to preclude true public participation, and in an era in which we're trying to encourage our citizens to be more engaged in government, this seems counter to that."

While acknowledging that meetings can drag on at times, he said if challenged in court, a court would, "look very hard," at the requirement to sign up and indicate the topic that someone wants to address. Policinski said that presents the opportunity for leaders to become selective, discriminatory or arbitrary as they choose who can speak. 

Richard Nelson of the Commonwealth Policy Foundation says he isn't aware of any other local governments that have restricted public comments, and he says it's no surprise that citizens would want to comment after controversial ordinances have been passed. 

Nelson said, "I understand that some of it might be repetitive, some of it might not be pleasant for them to hear, but the challenge is that this is local government and you would think that they would want the people to come before them to share their concerns, to share their perspective, and it gives the appearance that they're not interested in hearing that, and I think that's unfortunate."

Commissioner Brenda McElroy told West Kentucky Star she hasn't heard any comments that were threatening, obscene or defaming, which would not be protected speech, but she voted for the ordinance because of the trend toward disrespectful comments. McElroy asked several people about the proposed changes, including pastors, lawyers and representatives from the Kentucky League of Cities. 

McElroy said, "They (KLC) said a lot of cities don't allow any public comments and they said having comment about what you're doing is good - what's on your agenda. Let's face it, most of the time, the meetings follow an agenda and that is kind of our goal." 

She believes there have been efforts to meet with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and others about their concerns, but regarding the Veteran's Day Parade, she believes the commission is reflecting the viewpoint of a majority of Paducah's residents on that issue. Regarding other repeat commenters, she believes when opposing groups comment back-and-forth at meetings, the tone of the meeting changes. McElroy said that has left a negative impression of the work and progress that is made, since comments are at the end of the session.

Regarding some of the most vocal citizens, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, McElroy, the newest elected commissioner, said, "I think, perhaps, there were some issues about how they were treated before that has caused them to continue this fight. Sometimes it's not so much what you're trying to do, but how it was done that encourages people to stay at something."

She stressed that free speech is a right, but folks can't just walk into a school or church and just start talking to everyone.

"There's order to how we do things," McElroy said. She added that most people that have contacted her are also in favor of some restraint and, "they're tired of hearing about these things," at every meeting. 

When asked if she thought there could be a concerted effort to address this issue during the next election, McElroy said, "I don't think so. If they do, that is their privilege. Absolutely, that is their privilege."

County Judge-Executive Craig Clymer told West Kentucky Star their policy is even more restricted. 

"Consistent with state law, a Fiscal Court meeting is not necessarily open for public discussion for people to come up and voice their opinions, even if it is on the agenda." Clymer said.

He suggested that anyone with a concern should come see him or Deputy Judge Executive Steve Doolittle, or contact them by email. Clymer said the only time they have an open microphone is when a public hearing is required by law for passage of some types of ordinances.

When asked how the new rule at City Commission meetings would be enforced, Public Information Officer Pam Spencer told West Kentucky Star that as moderator, Mayor Brandi Harless has control of the meeting and has the power to ask someone to be quiet or leave the meeting if they try to speak out of turn or off-topic. When asked if someone could be banned from meetings or cited, Spencer said there is no written policy that would suggest those actions could be taken, and they hope that there would never be a situation where that would happen. 

Spencer added that, "if anything did try to get out of hand, we always have a police officer at meetings to help keep the peace."

City officials have repeatedly mentioned that they want input from the public on any topic, and they may call, email, use social media or forms on the city website, or visit City Hall in person.

Published 10:57 PM, Thursday Sep. 12, 2019
Updated 05:52 AM, Thursday Sep. 19, 2019

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