Feb 252011

By Tammy Gray-Searles —

Some familiar faces are at odds over a pending state bill that would require public bodies to hold a call to the public during meetings.

Senator Sylvia Allen of Snowflake is the driving force behind the bill. She has indicated that she believes it is a step in the right direction to allow citizens more involvement in their government.

Former Navajo County Government Relations Administrator Rod Ross, who now works with the County Supervisors Association, spoke out against the proposal, noting that it takes away local control.

Most public bodies in Navajo County include a call to the public as a regular part of their meetings. The Navajo County Board of Supervisors, for example, gives members of the public time to speak on any topic at the beginning of each meeting. Other bodies are more restrictive. The Holbrook City Council, for example, had previously restricted public comments at the beginning of a meeting to items that were on the agenda.

Under current law, public bodies are given a choice whether to allow petitions from the public during a meeting. The statute states that they “may” issue a call to the public. Allen’s proposal would essentially change the law to say that bodies “shall” offer a call to the public at each meeting.

The proposal is at odds with the idea that the meeting of a public body, while open for citizens to observe, is not a community meeting. Training provided to elected officials by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, for example, asserts that while the officials are there to represent and vote on behalf of the people, it is not necessarily a time for open discussion between officials and constituents.

Public bodies are also encouraged to use their broad discretion about how a call to the public operates to tailor the call to their specific situation. The point it occurs on the agenda, the length of time given to each speaker and whether remarks are limited to certain topics are all within the discretion of the public body. The League does encourage entities that include a call to the public to devise a formal plan and be consistent in its application.

The Navajo County Board of Supervisors tends to apply the rules liberally, often including additional times for petitions from the public on the agenda if it includes a controversial topic or if there are several individuals hoping to speak. If new information is presented following a call to the public, supervisors often allow individuals to speak again.

The process allows everyone an opportunity to have their say, but is also time-consuming and often results in the same information being presented multiple times.

Allen noted that she believes a change in the law would allow constituents to interact more with elected officials, especially in cases where public bodies do not allow calls to the public.

Critics note that forcing a call to the public could disrupt some meetings, and the decision should be left to local officials.