Move to Police Comments Heads to Committee

WINNSBORO – Although one citizen spoke out against the idea, and while three members of Council were lukewarm on the notion, County Council voted 7-0 Monday night to refer to committee a proposal to limit what members of the public may discuss during the two public comment segments of Council meetings.

“You cannot argue against the truth that free speech is essential to democracy and is a bulwark to tyranny,” Ridgeway resident Randy Bright told Council during the meeting’s firsts public comment session. “Council has Roberts Rules of Order and reams of federal speech laws to enhance orderly and productive meetings. Why do we need more laws? Why do we need more restrictions?”

Councilman Kamau Marcharia (District 4) brought the matter up during Council’s March 16 meeting, asking Council to consider closing the floor to public comment that strayed from the County’s turf, or that deviated into unsubstantiated and personal verbal attacks against elected officials serving on other public bodies. Marcharia told The Voice after the March 16 meeting that he was thinking specifically of the recent request made to Council by Gregrey Ginyard, Mayor of Jenkinsville, for $50,000 in matching grant funds for the completion of a sidewalk in the Western Fairfield town. Marcharia noted that public opposition to Ginyard’s request was accompanied by verbal attacks against Ginyard in his role as president of the Jenkinsville Water Company, with those attacks insinuating that Ginyard had mishandled or misappropriated water company funds.

“I wanted it to go before the committee to take a look at that and see whether or not we’re responsible for other elected officials,” Marcharia said Monday night, “or what the public can say about other people that are not in our purview.”

Councilman Dan Ruff (District 1) said he did not think the bylaws would have to change very much in order to address Marcharia’s concerns, provided Council abided by Roberts Rules of Order and provided the Chairwoman maintained order at the meetings.

Councilman Billy Smith (District 7), while agreeing to send the item to committee, also agreed with Ruff.

“I think that our bylaws and Roberts Rules of Order already preclude certain personal affronts or things of that nature,” Smith said. “I think our code of conduct in our bylaws takes care of that, so I don’t see a need for us to change anything.”

“I would say to you, Mr. Smith, that over the last 18 months there have been some very derogatory things said to Council members,” Marcharia said. “Threats and intimidations and people had to be removed from Council, and it’s in our bylaws to stop that, to gavel that and apparently folks didn’t have any respect for us with that so I think we need something in place that when that happens we are able to legally with our authority put a stop to it.”

Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6) said the topic, and not merely the content, of public comments needed to be addressed.

“We have issues that are brought (to us) that we have absolutely no control over,” she said. “Water is a typical example. I don’t think we need to hear water issues and concerns when really have nothing to do with it. Things that we can do something about, yes; but things we have no control over, that’s one thing I wanted to have changed.”

Councilman Walter Larry Stewart (District 3) said Council should be careful not to create “unmanageable legislation,” while Ruff added that Marcharia’s concerns apply to both the public and to Council members.

“I understand what Mr. Marcharia is saying, but I know that it happens on both sides of the fence,” Ruff said. “People need to be respectful on both sides, and I think it’s really up to the Chairman to moderate and keep everything under control on both sides.”

“And if I may, Madame Chairman,” Stewart said, “you already have that power. So let’s not go too far off the deep end.”

With the 7-0 vote, Robinson said the matter would be referred to the Administration and Finance Committee, which consists of Robinson, Kinley and District 5 Councilman Marion Robinson.

Later, during the County Council time portion of the meeting, Smith indicated that his decision on the matter had already been made.

“I just have to add that I think the government is the citizens’ tool,” Smith said, “and so if the citizens can’t come and tell us what they want, then we can’t do what our job is, so I certainly won’t be supporting that.”

“I’m glad to have everybody come and speak,” Ruff added. “Good, bad or whatever.”