Council cuts comments, raises ire

WINNSBORO – It’s not against the law, but the decision to delete a public comments period from the agenda didn’t sit well with several Fairfield County residents attending Monday night’s County Council meeting.

Moving forward, the council is restricting public commentary to items on the agenda. Residents are not allowed to discuss non-agenda topics as was customary in the second public comment period.

Instead of a second comment period, residents can now schedule “Citizen Concern Appointments” with County Administrator Jason Taylor.

The appointments would take place every Tuesday starting at 9:30 a.m. Residents who register would be allotted 30 minutes to address issues of community concern.

“We’d be glad to talk to you about any issue you’d like to talk about,” Taylor said.

In a related move, the council is also reducing the number of meetings it holds during November and December. Instead of meeting the second and fourth Monday, the council is only scheduling once-a-month meetings until the end of the year.

Council Chairman Neil Robinson said the reason for the move is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to identify enough agenda items to justify holding two meetings a month.

Ridgeway resident Randy Bright said he planned to praise the council during the second comment period, but he couldn’t because of the new policy restricting public comments to agenda items.

As for cutting back on monthly meetings, he said Fairfield is a county that can hardly afford to cut back.

“We have the sixth worst unemployment rate in the state. We have a declining population. We have a $50M weight of debt thanks to the Fairfield County Facilities Corporation, and our taxes are still going up. We have too much work to do to cut back on meetings,” Bright said.

“If the football team is down 30-0 at the halftime, is that the time you put in the subs and give up? No. This is not the time to give up on Fairfield County. If I were you guys, I’d schedule more meetings. Don’t give up on the county, don’t give up on us,” Bright said. “A public that’s kept in the dark will give up on the county themselves.”

Ten speakers took to the podium, the vast majority addressing the agenda controversy.

No speaker supported reducing the number of public comment periods. One person even waived a handheld sign that read “Forget citizens. The chair rules. ‘No’ 2nd comment session.”

Sue Rex, chair of the Fairfield County School District Education Foundation, came to speak about the Teacher Village. She submitted her comments instead.

Dr. J.R. Green, superintendent of the Fairfield County School District, was nearly ruled out of order while attempting to deliver a rebuttal to comments recently made by a council member.

Winnsboro resident Thomas (Tony) Armstrong was ruled out of order and cut off when he wouldn’t follow the new rule.

Armstrong commented on a proposed Zion Hill/Fortune Springs revitalization project, which was on the agenda, but also veered into the council’s decision to cut meetings down from twice to once a month for the rest of the year.

“Hopefully you’ve decided to reduce your pay, too, because you’re only doing half of the work,” Armstrong said. “You all are elected to represent the people. When you get too much power, you forget to whom you belong. You abuse power and allow administrators to abuse power.”

Council members didn’t specifically say why the change was made, though Councilwoman Bertha Goins said the policy would help curtail divisive rhetoric.

“I think the decision is just an awesome thing. When I think all of the violence going on in the world, until we get to the point where we can’t sit down and reason together, we are in a terrible place. If we could just learn how to reason together, maybe we can stop some of the violence.”

At least two council members appeared to reverse course on the decision later in the meeting.

After participating in a 6-0 vote to accept the agenda, which included only one public comment period, council members Moses Bell and Jimmy Ray Douglas signaled support for reinstating the second comment period.

Council Chairman Neil Robinson said he wasn’t opposed to reinstating the public comment period.

“I know a lot of people are a little irritated, a little in an uproar about it. A lot of counties don’t have a public comment session,” Robinson said. “Some have one, some have two. I’ve called around to different councils, spoke to different chairmen on how they do things. Nothing is in stone, but we are trying to make things better.”

At one point, Robinson deferred to County Attorney Tommy Morgan, who said there’s no law requiring public comment periods at government meetings.

“It is common across the state to have differences,” Morgan said. “The allegation that there’s been a constitutional violation by the removal of the second public comment session is an incorrect assertion.”

Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association, agreed that including public comment periods is not a legal requirement. But he also said deleting them erodes public confidence in government.

“I don’t think it serves the public well if they shut out discussion,” Rogers said. “These people are public servants. They need to listen to their bosses.”