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Greenville council calls special meeting Friday, may permanently change how public can comment

Greenville County Council has made a number of temporary changes to how it operates during the coronavirus pandemic. Now it could make at least two of those changes permanent.

The council may permanently disallow public comment on non-agenda topics at its regular business meetings. The council made that change as part of temporary measures when it moved from in-person to online meetings in March during the initial stages of the pandemic.

After public outcry, the council scheduled separate meetings to hear from the public virtually. It has held two separate public meetings about non-agenda items so far, one with more than 30 speakers and a second one with far fewer.

The proposed change would allow the council chairman, at his discretion, to schedule standalone meetings to hear from the public on non-agenda items.

The council also will consider whether to permanently allow council members to vote remotely. Its current rules, which were suspended during the pandemic, require council members to be in person to vote on agenda items.

The council has scheduled a special called meeting at 4 p.m. Friday to discuss the amendments. The meeting will be livestreamed on the county’s website.

It won’t hear from the public at the special called meeting, which means the council may vote to change public comment procedures without ever hearing from the public on the matter.

The proposed change would give more power to the council chairman, currently Kirven, to call, or not call, public comment sessions, said Councilman Ennis Fant.

“We’ll hear from the public whenever the chairman decides he wants to hear from the public,” Fant said.

Kirven said the change is written to give some flexibility to when public comment sessions could be scheduled, but his intent is to expand public comment, not limit it.

“It gives an expanded opportunity,” Kirven said. “It gives citizens more time when you decouple that (public comment) from a regular business meeting agenda.”

Kirven said as chairman he plans to schedule the open public comment meetings regularly, likely once per month with some exceptions.

He said there may be times when they need to hear from the public more depending on the sensitivity of a situation that people want to bring to the council.

The council’s regular rules now call for public comment on non-agenda items for up to 30 minutes at the end of a regularly scheduled council meeting. The council also allows a public comment on agenda items near the beginning of each meeting.

Councilman Lynn Ballard said the open-mic nights have worked well and he liked the idea of separating it from the regular meetings because council can devote its whole attention to the citizen comments.

Ballard said a prudent chairman would listen to the public if there’s an issue that they want to discuss openly and would schedule a meeting to hear from constituents.

“The chairman, if he’s responsive to the people, should schedule a meeting,” he said. “I don’t see it as the people being shut out. They just need to let their voice be heard either by contacting the chairman himself, contacting the clerk or contacting their own individual councilman” and a meeting could be scheduled.

At its core, the proposed changes will allow the council to move away from the emergency measures it has taken during the pandemic. It suspended its regular rules for all meetings for county council, boards and commissions but has to reauthorize the emergency measures every 60 days.

A number of council members have grown weary of the virtual meetings and have suggested the council move to a hybrid meeting model where some council members could meet in person and others continue to dial in virtually.

This change would facilitate that, for now and the future.

Council Chairman Butch Kirven said the council’s goal is to move back to fully in-person meetings once a vaccine is available and its members can all safely return to public meetings.

The change would also allow for some limited public participation at County Square for meetings. The state health department has said the county could have about 70 people in Council Chambers at one time.

The timing of that change may be crucial to a pending court case as the Council has scheduled a required public hearing for Nov. 23 to discuss its plan to eliminate six sewer subdistricts and consolidate sewer service for unincorporated areas of the county into Metropolitan Sewer Subdistrict, or MetroConnects.

Four sewer districts have sued the county and want a judge to postpone that public hearing, in part saying that the county’s virtual meeting structure doesn’t allow for a full and complete hearing for members of the public who don’t have internet access or can’t use a virtual platform. A hearing is scheduled for Monday in that case to decide whether the hearing can move forward as scheduled.

Kirven said council needs to stick to the proposed hearing date in order to have enough time to pass its sewer consolidation plan before the end of the year when the council changes. A new council would have to begin the process again, he said.

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