VERONA — The Augusta County Board of Supervisors tweaked its meeting guidelines Thursday to place a time limit on public comments and add a requirement for speakers to sign up beforehand.
The board approved the change in guidelines 5-2, with Wayne Supervisor Scott Seaton and Pastures Supervisor Pam Carter dissenting. Under the new guidelines, speakers are allowed to speak for three minutes — or five minutes if they are representing a group — and must sign up to speak with the board’s clerk no later than 30 minutes into a planned meeting.
County Administrator Tim Fitzgerald said the guidelines are in line with other surrounding localities.
“Rockingham County has a three-minute time limit on public comment. Albemarle County has a three-minute time period, but they also limit at their meetings only 10 people can sign up to speak,” Fitzgerald said. “Waynesboro requires folks to sign up by seven o’clock.”
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Chairman Gerald Garber said the change would prevent bad decisions made because of lengthy, repetitive meetings. Garber said he received complaints from community members about excessively long comments from the public.
“Anywhere, anytime, on any subject in any organization, decisions made after 10 o’clock are usually bad ones,” Garber said. “Because everyone is fatigued, and sometimes you will just agree with something to get out the door. There is a reason for everybody, not just the people [on the board]. There’s a reason for people not to sit through meetings that go on endlessly where the same thing gets said over and over.”
Seaton called the rules ‘terrible’ and suggested the guidelines suppressed speech.
“These guidelines are suggesting the board is in a crisis, and I don’t see the crisis,” Seaton said. “Which meetings have been disorderly? I haven’t seen them. I think the Augusta County people are very orderly. People have been speaking civilly, addressing the board with their concerns. Public comment occurs near the end of the meeting after county business has been conducted, so it’s not delaying county business.”
Board approves bridge loan
In other business, the board unanimously approved an $8.2 million bridge loan to Augusta County Schools to allow construction to begin on the Riverheads and Buffalo Gap middle school wings.
“This project’s been going on for a long time,” Riverheads Supervisor Mike Shull said. “With escalating prices, we need to get in there with the rates going up for borrowing money.”
The Board of Supervisors will be reimbursed for the loan after the county schools participate in the Virginia Public School Authority bond sale in November.
Construction will begin on the wings soon, with a goal to have the schools in operation by fall 2024.