BOCC discusses future of public comment

Alachua County staff will start investigating ways to increase remote public comment after getting rid of the call-in system it used during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During an Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on Tuesday, commissioners had differing ideas on how to implement the program and specifics on how much time each speaker would get. Staff will now work to create a program and policy that can return for a vote or further direction.

“We’re just looking for something direction-wise so that we’re not spinning our wheels or wasting time on these different technologies that we’ve got on the drawing board,” County Manager Michele Lieberman said.

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The BOCC eliminated the call-in system because of the cost, which ranged from $135 to $266 per call. Mark Sexton, communications director for the county, said the county adopted the most expensive option during the pandemic.

He reached out to other entities to see how they provided remote comments and said the School Board of Alachua County has the next most expensive option with two employees handling the system for entire meetings.

Other Google or Zoom options could reduce costs.

One option would allow recorded public comment that could be played during the meeting, but staff noted implementation could prove challenging.

Under current BOCC rules, only the chair can reign in a commenter for inappropriate speech—such as cursing or comments that are off-topic. While staff could listen to the recordings in advance to flag any issues, they’d likely still be played at the meeting.

Alachua County Manager Michele Lieberman

“The screening of that is a very difficult thing because of First Amendment speech issues, so most likely, we’re not going to screen out anything,” Lieberman said.

But the chair could ask the recordings to be stopped or muted once played.

Commissioner Mary Alford said she had no problem with that setup. Currently, anyone can stand up in person and say anything they want until asked to stop or leave, she said. The new system would be similar.

“It’s really great to see people’s faces, but a voice is better than nothing,” Alford said.

The commission would also decide whether to allow recorded comments for each item on the agenda, a time for general public comment, or some combination.

Commissioner Anna Prizzia said she liked the idea of a caller having three minutes for a general comment and three minutes for a comment on an agenda item. However, if callers wanted to record for multiple items, they would need to show up physically.

Sexton said cheaper live comment options are also available, including a Zoom add-on that county staff members are exploring.

Last November the BOCC decided to turn off all comments on its social media posts, but Sexton said users can’t deactivate comments for live streams, which is why the commission meetings stopped airing on Facebook.

Sexton added that any ads the county purchases on Facebook must also allow comments.

He also added that the county currently has many options in place to help those who might need interpreters, help accessing the building or other hindrances.

Anyone who needs accommodations can call (352) 374-5275 at least two days prior to the meeting for county staff to help.

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