The Washington County commissioners may have to tweak their public comment period after updating the policy during Thursday’s meeting that led to complaints from several people who wanted to speak but were denied.
The commissioners voted unanimously to expand the amount of time from three minutes to five in which one person can speak on behalf of a larger group on a single issue, which has been a policy for years.
That led to complaints from a half-dozen people who apparently wished to speak about the 2020 election after board Chairwoman Diana Irey Vaughan said they must pick a single spokesperson for the group. Ashley Duff of Monongahela, a frequent critic of the presidential election, spoke for the allotted five minutes, once again raising concerns and asking for a full forensic audit.
But a woman who spoke to Irey Vaughan after the meeting said her friend was in the audience and wanted to speak to praise of the county’s election office and let county officials know she was against an audit. Irey Vaughan said Friday she’s thinking about how the policy was implemented and whether there should be changes on how to apply it.
“If there’s an issue, we’ll correct it,” Irey Vaughan said. “We are going to handle it differently.”
Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association in Harrisburg, said some changes should be made to ensure all viewpoints are heard. She said that if speakers are talking about the same issue and have nearly identical opinions or messages, then the board can limit them after hearing it multiple times.
“Who else supports it? Raise your hand. Anyone who wants to say something different, here’s your shot,” Melewsky said of a hypothetical public comment situation. “The only time they can lump people together is if they’re saying the same thing.”
Numerous residents have regularly commented on the 2020 election over the past four months and asked for the commissioners to perform what they termed a “full forensic audit” of the electronic voting machines. But Melewsky said the commissioners don’t necessarily know what will be said, so lumping groups together before a person speaks can be an issue. Once it’s clear a “repetitive” viewpoint is being expressed, the county officials can move on to other commenters, she said.
“I’m not saying they have to sit there and listen to the same canned speech 50 times, but people have the right to let their elected leaders know where they stand,” Melewsky said. “The assumption is the problem. They’re assuming people are taking a position when they have no idea what people are going to say.”
County solicitor Jana Grimm said the group speaking policy is in place to keep meetings “orderly” and on task. She said it doesn’t involve a single topic, and would be enforced if countless were talking about other issues, such as littering.
“It’s not content related,” Grimm said. “If they’re in the same interest and if they’re saying the same thing ... then the chair has the right to put in reasonable rules.”
The next voting meeting for the commissioners will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 21 in the first-floor conference room at Courthouse Square.