13 running for five Salisbury City Council seats
By Jessica Coates
SALISBURY — After Aug. 1, the tone of the 2017 City Council race changed.
During the Aug. 1 City Council meeting, Councilman Brian Miller said that East Spencer resident Carolyn Logan was out of order after Logan accused Mayor Karen Alexander of overbilling the city when Alexander was in charge of a Fibrant construction project.
The Post has been unable to verify Logan’s claims.
While Logan asked Miller repeatedly, “How am I out of order?” Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell handed Alexander the gavel, which Alexander then used to rule Logan out of order.
Logan, who is a frequent attendee of Salisbury City Council meetings, returned for the Aug. 15 meeting.
Logan said, during the Aug. 15 public comment period, that her constitutional rights had been violated at the previous meeting and that the council had broken state laws by not allowing her to finish speaking.
Seconds into Logan’s comments about the previous meeting, Alexander ruled Logan out of order.
“How am I out of order?” Logan asked.
“You’re out of order because you’re saying things that are not true, Ms. Logan,” Alexander said.
When Logan interrupted Alexander and asked what she had said that was not true, Alexander held up her index finger to Logan and shushed her.
“You have said that City Council has done something outside of the law. This has been researched. We are fully within the law,” Alexander said.
The interaction between Logan and Alexander began a citywide conversation about what qualifies not only as legal but appropriate behavior for both council members and citizens during City Council public comment periods.
Alexander said, in a separate interview with the Post, that she felt she had not done anything wrong.
“I choose to say that, if I can do better, I’m going to do better. But I still think that she needed to be gaveled for her comments and I was fully within the right. And I have not heard anything from the ACLU or anyone else from the state telling me that I was not in my right to do it,” Alexander said.
Alexander said that public comment is “one of the most important things that we deal with.”
“Because we do want to hear from our citizens. But we also want to have respect and civil process in that.” Alexander said. “There are rules of engagement when you’re in a formal setting that you must obey in order for you to have the opportunity to speak.”
Alexander said that, should she be reelected, she would not recommend any changes to the format of the public comment period.
Councilman Brian Miller also said that there should be a “level of civil discourse in these meetings.”
“I don’t think we should lower our standards for one person or another. We need adult conversation. You can say anything you want to me; I’m a public official and I signed up for that. But civil discourse is important,” Miller said.
Miller said that the current format of public comment does not allow council members and citizens to have “meaningful dialogue.”
He said that he would recommend moving public comment period to the beginning or end of the meeting and having a quarterly forum to discuss “whatever’s boiling up” among citizens at that time.
Todd Paris said that City Council should more clearly define what a “personal attack” is in their rules of procedure for public comment periods.
“They better draw it very narrowly because the thing is, these public comments are the only time once a month that the citizens can stand up in front of their elected officials and speak to them in public with the media and everyone else watching. It’s the only other avenue for doing that that we have,” Paris said.
The resolution for the public comment rules of procedure currently says: “Speakers will be courteous in their language and presentation. Personal attacks will not be tolerated and will be deemed out of order.”
Rodney Queen said that having the public comment period in the middle of the meeting, at 6 p.m., is “obviously upsetting some of the council members.”
“They need to have a clear mind. They need to have a good frame of mind. And having public comment in the middle of it is disturbing that,” Queen said.
Queen suggested that there be a third monthly meeting — in addition to the two monthly meetings that City Council currently has — that is designated for public comment.
He said that, at this third meeting, no other business would be discussed and council members would have the chance to respond to citizens.
John Struzick said he is a “strong believer in First Amendment rights,” but that those rights applied to both council members and citizens.
“I guess everyone should be able to say what they want to say as long as they’re not accusatory. Public comment and accusing someone of something is a whole different thing,” Struzick said.
Struzick said that moving the public comment period from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. would give the council two hours to conduct its business before public comment began.
David Post was the councilperson who, two years ago, recommended that public comment happen at every meeting and that it happen at a specific time every meeting.
Post said that, especially in the wake of the deaths of A’yanna Allen and Ferguson Laurent, public comment “served an incredible purpose.” Allen, 7, was killed when a drive-by shooter fired shots into the bedroom where she was sleeping. Laurent fired at police serving a no-knock warrant at his residence and was killed by an officer.
“I think giving (them) a public platform to vent two amazingly difficult issues in the city, both in a short period of time, was powerful. And so I don’t think we should run away from it,” Post said.
Several candidates said that restrictions on the public comment period should be loosened.
Latasha Wilks said that she would like for people to be able to speak during public comment even if they are not able to sign up before 6 p.m.
“Does everybody get off at 6? No. I think that public comment should be open that, if you get off at 6, you could come on in at 6:15 and still speak and not have a restriction,” Wilks said.
She also said that it is important to give a speaker their full three minutes.
“Now, if somebody comes in there and throws a chair, yes, we need to have restrictions on stuff like that, yes. But let them say what they’ve got to say,” Wilks said.
Kenny Hardin said that, should he be reelected, he would take “all restraints” off of public comment.
“I’m going to have a time limit, but when that ‘ding, ding, ding’ (happens), I don’t want (to cut people off). No, keep talking, if you’re saying something relevant. I don’t think we should be so bound by rules,” Hardin said.
Al Heggins said that council members should never forget that they work for the public.
“You are placed in that seat because you got enough votes from the public to do that,” Heggins said. “So when you are sitting before a citizen, look at it that way. That you are sitting before the citizen, that the citizen isn’t sitting before you.”
Leda Belk said that council should loosen the restrictions on council members responding to citizens.
“If they need to ask a question that is relevant to their issue, and we can provide information to help them understand, why not? Why not? Why is it one-sided? It helps us to understand them (and) it helps them to understand the city,” Belk said.
Other candidates said that altering rules or adding resources could help citizens feel more welcome in the City Council chambers.
Patricia Jones “P.J.” Ricks said that adding interpreters might help more community members feel comfortable coming forward.
“I think a lot of our citizens don’t come to public comment because they don’t feel welcome. They don’t feel like they’re heard or understood. There may be a language barrier. And so, if we help them feel more comfortable, they’re able to say what they need to say or want to say,” Ricks said.
Ryan Evans said that every citizen should be able to speak, no matter what the subject is. But he recommended that different subjects have different time limits.
“If your subject is dealing with any of the things on our agenda today, I believe you should be allotted four minutes. If your subject is not dealing with anything on our agenda today, I believe you should only be allotted two minutes,” Evans said.
Evans said that listening to comments, even if they are outside of the council’s jurisdiction, would help “not give them any type of doubt that we’re not there for them.”
Tamara Sheffield said that having greeters who can explain the public comment process to newcomers could help citizens feel less intimidated.
“When people come that have never been there and they want to come and speak, they’ve never been to a meeting and suddenly they’re motivated to be involved, let’s have a greeter. What is wrong with that?” Sheffield said. “I don’t think it’s that hard and it would extend a huge, good old friendly charm.”
Contact reporter Jessica Coates at 704-797-4222.