Metro Planning Possibly Changing Some Public Comment Rules

Posted at 6:14 PM, Sep 14, 2015
and last updated 2015-09-18 19:05:13-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Metro Planning Commission has been looking to change its rules for public comment on consent agenda items.

The plan has been to ask residents interested in speaking on more than two items on the consent agenda to tell staff members why they want to talk about multiple topics.

"This is about keeping the meetings more orderly. It's about keeping speakers on topic. It's not about restricting anyone's access," said Craig Owensby, the plan commission's spokesman.

He said the proposed change was designed to deter residents who may come to a meeting to purposely disrupt it.

"We've had speakers come in and say, 'I want to pull everything off consent, and have a public hearing on every last item, and speak to it whether I'm on topic or not,'" Owensby explained.

The proposed change would add two lines to the commission's current rules for public comment. In fact, Owensby said it could grant even greater access to commissioners.

"It actually expands the public's access because they can address commissioners directly about consent agenda items. They will in fact get a hearing, if the commission so decide," said Owensby.

The commissioners could also decide not to hear from that resident.

"When you're telling the public, we're going to decide whether you have a right to speak, or we're going to decide if your request to speak has merit, that is extremely troubling. That should be extremely troubling to anyone in this town," said resident Lisa Zhito.

Zhito has been a member of the Green Hills Neighborhood Association, a group that has taken issue with the proposed changes.

"Nobody was aware of any sort of rash of frivolous requests to speak, if such a thing would even exist," said Zhito. "It seemed like a very heavy-handed, sort of, almost, authoritarian response to something we didn't really even know was a problem."

Owensby reiterated the proposed changes have not been meant to stifle free speech. He also said if the changes were to go into affect, the commissioners would still hear each request to make a comment.

"There's a widely held piece of misinformation here, claiming when you come in and tell the staff people what you want to address, what topic, then staff then decides if you can speak or not, that's 100% wrong," according to Owensby.

The commission deferred voting on this issue during its September 10 meeting. They will next take up the topic during a work session, which will be open to the public. It has currently been scheduled for a vote during the commission's first meeting in October.