EDITORIAL: Public hearings

By NEMS Daily Journal

The Tupelo City Council’s apparent move toward further discussing who is allowed to address the council in the regularly scheduled time for public statements at council meetings is the right move in the right spirit of open dialogue.
The issue grabbed attention his week when City Council President Fred Pitts invoked a standing rule barring anyone except city residents from addressing the council in its regular public hearing slot. The council voted to suspend the rules and allow former Tupelo Regional Airport administrator Terry Anderson to speak. Anderson, who was fired in December by the Tupelo Airport Authority, used the time to make allegations about conditions and management at the airport.
There’s no doubt that the council, like other public legislative bodies, has the right to control its meeting agenda, including limiting who may address the council, but the rule, if maintained, should apply uniformly.
Pitts said he is examining the ordinance that governs access to the council.
It seems reasonable to require that those who seek access have some issue that bears on city business – whether a proposal, question or complaint. There’s no need to open the forum to speakers who have comments and issues not germane to city business, whether about the airport or any other officially connected issue.
Tupelo’s existing rule about speaking to the council requires residency, but it has been waived or ignored in some instances.
Many towns and cities have more complex requirements for addressing the governing council than does Tupelo. Some cities strictly adhere to the residency requirements, some require a petition signed by a specific number of electors; and some set public hearings apart from regular council meetings.
Almost all cities set time limits for speakers, a reasonable and practical requirement that moves agendas forward and allows time for multiple issues to be raised in the public interest.
Pitts, who has been council president since the four-year term began in 2009, has consistently enforced a five-minute limit.
Most citizens, public officials and public bodies like city councils and boards of supervisors welcome public hearings because it allows direct access to the governing process.
Sometimes public hearings raise contentious issues, but differences of opinion and complaints about government performance can and should be dealt with in the open.
We applaud the council’s willingness to examine the public hearing issue and clarify who can speak and the process required.