Sheriff questions enforcement of rules for meetings
A set of rules that will allow for the removal of people who disrupt Georgetown County meetings is due to take effect March 1. County Council agreed to delay implementation to allow for law enforcement training.
Sheriff Carter Weaver raised concerns about the measures.
“Who’s determining disruptive behavior?” Weaver asked. “What are the courts and case law saying is disruptive behavior, especially in a public meeting in a public space?”
The sheriff’s office provides security at the courthouse that houses the County Council chambers.
Under the rules adopted by ordinance this week, people who attend county government meetings and who speak to the council and its boards and commissions “shall conduct themselves in a decent, orderly, respectful, and lawful manner, or shall be subject to removal from a meeting. Those who are removed can be barred from attending meetings for up to 12 months at the “sole discretion” of the chairman.
Weaver said his deputies are required to follow state law, not the orders of board chairmen. He didn’t envision deputies at the courthouse keeping track of who was allowed to attend meetings.
“The county attorney reached out to me several months ago, and I sent him some case law with my concerns,” Weaver said. “I asked him to not only worry about the behavior of the public. I also told him it needed to have a component of the board members and council members, because how can you deal with a disruptive electorate or a disruptive citizenry and not deal with a disruptive board.”
Weaver added that he never saw the final draft of the ordinance.
County Council approved the measure by title only in December. This month, at the the second of three required meetings, the ordinance passed unanimously without comment.
“We were surprised that it was approved without any discussion,” said Cindy Person, chief counsel for Keep It Green Advocacy, who has spoken before the council and Planning Commission frequently along with people whom she represents.
She was among those who urged the council to reconsider the rules and whether they are constitutional.
“I find the last-minute nature of this disturbing,” Person said.
“I was shocked,” Angela Bass told the council during its public comment period this week.
She said she was unable to find the text of the ordinance until it was due for second reading, which “at least falls short of the spirit of the law.”
Bass questioned the need, saying she couldn’t find any evidence of disruptions at meetings.
“No pitchforks. No smoking torches,” she said. “The ordinance as it reads actually threatens voters.”
Council Member Bob Anderson, who cast the lone vote against the rules, said he didn’t get a copy of the ordinance in advance of the meeting where it received second reading.
“It needs some more TLC,” Anderson said.
The ordinance requires speakers to “refrain from personal attacks” and from “directing remarks to the audience or entering into exchanges with other public speakers.”
In addition, people can only speak from the podium or other designated areas. They are not allowed to brings signs into meetings.
Those who ignore “lawful direction” from the person chairing a meeting “shall be immediately removed.”
“I think we moved away from that when we left England,” Weaver said.
Council Member Raymond Newton asked the county attorney, Jay Watson, “does this any way infringe as you see it on anybody’s First Amendment rights?”
“I don’t see any issue,” Watson said.
Council Chairman Louis Morant confirmed that there is currenly no set of common rules for the council and its boards and commissions.
“Generally, all of them are governed by Roberts’ Rules of Order,” Watson said. “There’s the inherent power of the presiding officer, the rule of the gavel.”
Anderson said the only problem he has seen at meetings is getting the public to attend.
While he has previously proposed limits on public comment, “we have gone a bridge too far with the details.”
Council Member Everett Carolina abstained, saying he needed further information.
After the measure passed, Council Member Clint Elliott asked if council could delay implementation of the ordinance “to give our law enforcement a chance to do some training.”
Council Member Louis Morant suggested a delay until March 1.
“My other concern is: How do you enforce it?” Weaver said. “I’ve seen nothing from council to show me that question has been answered.”