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Councilman Mark Stewart proposed a policy change that would allow public comments during discussion on specific agenda items at city council meetings.

LIVE OAK — In a split vote, the Live Oak City Council decided last week to consider changes to its policy on public comments at council meetings.

Councilman Mark Stewart proposed letting residents that wish to comment during the council’s monthly meetings to decide whether they’d like to speak at the start of the meeting or when specific agenda items are considered.

Currently, the council allows public comments at the beginning of the meeting based on Resolution 13-13.

“This is something that has been spoken about in several different municipalities,” Stewart said in proposing the change at the June 11 meeting, which will be brought back for the council’s consideration in a revised resolution.

“Public participation in government business is the bedrock of American local government and should be protected, permitted and not discouraged,” Stewart added in reading from the city’s current public comment resolution.

Don Allen was in agreement with the change, noting there were several members of the public at the meeting that wanted to comment on an agenda item but addressed the board earlier in the meeting due to the current policy.

Stewart’s proposal also followed an exchange at the May meeting when Dick Calvitt wished to address the council’s evaluation of City Manager Ron Williams but was told his chance to speak was at the start of the meeting.

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Councilman David Burch said residents need to speak with representatives prior to meetings.

Council President Bennie Thomas and councilman David Burch voted against the potential change.

Thomas said with the city manager form of government, residents needed to bring issues to Williams first before addressing the board.

Burch added that residents should be reaching out to their representative on the council prior to the meeting to voice issues or concerns anyway, so he didn’t see the need for speaking on specific items.

“Public comment is very important and I welcome it,” Burch said. “There’s a way to do it, though. If you understand civics, we’re a representative government…Their voice should be heard through us.

“Most of the time we’ve done research before we vote on something…It’s usually not while we’re up here voting, if someone brought something up during the meeting, I’d want to put it off until the next meeting to research what they’re saying.”

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Stewart said his proposed change wouldn’t change any of that, just letting people address specific agenda items in the meeting.

“With what I have proposed here, they will not speak unless they’re speaking to an agenda item,” he said. “You have time beforehand to do any research you want to do.

“But they do have an opportunity to speak to it.”

When asked his opinion, City Attorney Fred Koberlein told the council that the current policy is legal as is Stewart’s proposal. He agreed that residents likely would be advocating their cause with members of the council prior to a meeting, but they still had the right to speak once again at meetings.

“If it’s really dear to you, you’re not waiting for a meeting to try and change someone’s mind,” Koberlein added. “At the meeting, is what you’re addressing right now. When are they going to continue advocating during the meeting?”

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