You’ll notice several letters to the editor in today’s edition concerning a recent Clay County Planning & Zoning hearing regarding a request for a conditional use permit that would allow a housing development to be constructed along a stretch of the Missouri River near Clay County Park.
I was unable to attend the hearing – it was held on the Plain Talk’s press day – and the meeting wasn’t streamed on Zoom so that it could later be viewed on the county’s YouTube channel.
I do, however, have a very brief message for county commissioners, for they will be the next local governing body to act on the conditional use permit: Be Prepared.
The letter writers all indicate the same thing: There were lots of concerned people at the hearing – so many that they all couldn’t fit in the county’s meeting room at the courthouse and many people had to strain to hear what was going on from the hallway.
It also appears that the meeting wasn’t conducted in a fair manner and that’s what I’d like to talk about today, because this is IMPORTANT.
Two significant things happened at the hearing, according to letters we’ve received:
1) The planning and zoning board approved the conditional use permit.
2) The planning and zoning board violated the First Amendment rights of a number of Clay County citizens.
I’ve been doing this newspaper thing for over 40 years, so I hold the First Amendment near and dear. The First Amendment is more about freedom of the press, however. It grants us freedom of speech, a right that’s especially important when citizens wish to vocally share a message to members of governing bodies.
Most government meetings in Vermillion are open to the public and they reserve a “public comment” time for citizen commentary on issues. The Vermillion City Council has been great in guaranteeing that citizens have that opportunity to voice their concerns. The Vermillion School Board, likewise, does an excellent job of doing their work out in the open and welcoming citizen input.
The narrative shared by letter writers this week commonly states that the planning and zoning board heard from an attorney representing those who favor the granting of the conditional use permit. The board heard comments from some of the people who oppose the housing development along the river.
The body then allowed the attorney representing the developers to speak once again and refute many of the views shared by Clay County citizens.
In other words, errors were made.
Most of us aren’t First Amendment scholars. That’s why organizations like the Citizen Advocacy Center exist. The group, based in Illinois, is committed to:
• Make government more accountable to the people by increasing democratic protocols and by developing and empowering the voice of citizens
• Further the citizen's understanding of civic tools and public skill in using these tools for societal problem solving
When public bodies write the rules that govern public comment periods, they need to remain aware of the First Amendment rights of those who wish to speak during that public comment time. While lawful public comment policies may vary, the Citizen Advocacy Center recommends the best practices for a welcoming public comment policy include protecting political speech.
One way that can occur is for the public and the Clay County Commission, which serves the public, to work together when, in the near future, the commission will take action on this conditional use permit.
There likely are people who are planning to attend the county commission meeting and address commissioners at the public meeting when the conditional use permit is on the meeting’s agenda. We suggest that they let County Auditor Carri Crum know NOW of their intent to be there to speak.
That will allow the county commission to prepare for the conditional use permit hearing in a manner that properly protects citizen’s First Amendment rights. By knowing how many speakers it will face before its meeting, the commission can prepare to put a reasonable time limit in place for receiving public input.
The Citizen Advocacy Center recommends that a public body limit public comment to both a specific time frame for the entire public comment period, and per speaker. In that spirit, we suggest that the county commission and members cooperate before the hearing. By knowing how many people wish to speak, the commission can, in advance, pencil out a time period to allow citizens input.
We suggest taxpayers be given five minutes each to address the commission. Should commissioners know that at least 12 people wish to speak on the topic of the permit, they need to devote at least an hour for that input to take place. Just prior to the meeting, it would best serve the public for the commission to expand that time frame a bit.
For example, the governing body may know that 12 people plan to speak because they gave advance notice and therefore will need to schedule an hour for that to occur. What may be uncertain, however, is the number of people who either didn’t know advance notice is desired or didn’t have the opportunity to provide such notice.
Those “unknown” people still have a First Amendment right to address the commission and the governing body must set aside time for them, too. That can best be accomplished by, again, working together to get a head count of the people who wish to speak at the hearing. Something as simple as a sign-up sheet at the meeting can allow the commission to accomplish that goal.
There are other things the county commission should expect at this very moment and they should BE PREPARED. They should plan to accommodate the people they serve.
That means finding a larger space to hold this hearing so that all interested citizens can at least fit in the room, let alone participate. It also means continuing the normal practice of offering a video stream of the meeting, even though the meeting may be held in a different than normal place.
It all boils down to this: When a government decides to offer a “public comment” period at an open meeting, it provides that citizens may exercise their First Amendment rights. Government officials can limit comments to the relevant subject matter, control disruptive or overly repetitive speakers and impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech.
However, when government officials create a public-comment forum, they have created a limited public forum in which greater free-speech protections apply. The government may not silence speakers on the basis of their viewpoint or the content of their speech. The government must treat similarly situated speakers similarly.
In essence, the government must live up to the values embodied in the First Amendment.
It appears the Clay County Planning & Zoning Board did not live up to those values. We expect the Clay County Commission to not ever make the same mistake of denying citizens’ rights.
We expect the county commission to prepare to always protect those rights -- especially in the future when this conditional use permit hearing is held.