2018-01-04 / Front Page

Comment preserved at county meetings

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

You’ll still get two opportunities to speak your mind at meetings of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners in 2018 and see each commissioner there in person instead of on a computer screen.

An effort to limit public comment at executive committee meetings of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners and allow commissioners to participate in meetings electronically when they’re away on vacation were decisively rejected by the board at its annual organizational meeting this week.

The organizational meeting is held to review “rules of order and procedure” for board meetings, among other topics.

Commissioners have been expecting to see a sizable crowd appear at a special County Board “committee of the whole” meeting that is slated for Jan. 30 at 9 a.m. The special meeting was scheduled in response to direct requests from dozens of people who offered public comment at several meetings late last year in support of the county adopting a “septic ordinance.”

No fewer than 11 “expert witnesses” have been called upon to speak to that day – some of them driving many hours from downstate. Commissioners have expressed concern that the volume of public comment likely to be offered at the meeting before the board even gets a chance to hear from the experts is liable to be overwhelming, and the meeting could last literally all day.

Indeed, efforts are already underway to pack the meeting with members of the public who support adoption of a Benzie-Leelanau Distrrict Health Department “point of sale” septic inspection ordinance that would apply to Leelanau County. On Tuesday, an “email blast” went out to members and supporters of a county-sponsored group known as Leelanau Clean Water urging “public attendance” at the meeting.

District No. 7 Commissioner Melinda Lautner, who has also been serving as chairman of the Leelanau Benzie Health Department Board, said that “public comment” in general at County Board meetings has been timeconsuming and not always helpful. She proposed several measures she said might help improve public discourse at meetings.

At this week’s annual organizational meeting, Lautner proposed adding a “commissioner comment” opportunity immediately following the “public comment” opportunity on the agenda of the board’s monthly executive meetings.

“There are a lot of things said (during public comment) that aren’t exactly correct,” Lautner said.

A “commissioner comment” opportunity immediately following “public comment” would give commissioners the opportunity to “clarify” comments made by member of the public during the meeting, Lautner said. She noted that members of the public often leave the meeting after the initial public comment period and are not there to hear commissioners provide the “correct” information.

District No. 3 Commissioner and County Board Chairman Will Bunek said that commissioners immediately “rebutting” public comment at meetings “would create an almost antagonistic” atmosphere at meetings that would “not help move our meetings forward.”

After several other commissioners weighed in on the topic with similar views, Lautner withdrew her motion.

She then moved to eliminate the first of two “public comment” opportunities at County Board executive meetings. Her motion failed for lack of a second.

Lautner then moved to limit the amount of time allowed for each member of the public to speak during the initial public comment opportunity to two minutes, down from five minutes.

County administrator Chet Janik noted that state law requires at least three minutes be allowed for public comment per person. Lautner then modified her motion to reduce the time allowed for public comment to three minutes each.

Lautner’s motion failed for lack of a second.

Lautner wasn’t the only commissioner whose ideas went down in flames at this week’s meeting.

District No. 4 Commissioner Ty Wessell, who likes to spend some time in warmer climates for a few weeks each winter, proposed a change to the board’s rules that would allow commissioners to participate in meetings at least once each year via “Skype” or “Facetime” or some other electronic means.

But fellow commissioners disagreed with that proposal.

“I think there’s some value in having people look me in the face in person and be able to spit in my eye if they feel like it,” said District No. 1 Commissioner Tony Ansorge.

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