The policy for public comment at Bucks County Commissioners meetings has changed with the new year, and speakers will have less time to talk.
The change is the second in two years and follows a growth in the number of regular public speakers since 2020. It also follows an increase in off-topic comments and fiery vitriol.
At Tuesday’s reorganization meeting, the commissioners – two Democrats and one Republican – approved the new public comment policy for 2024.
Previously, the policy enacted in 2022 let the public comment twice during meetings, once before the commissioners voted on agenda items and once after. The first public comment period let speakers have three minutes and second two minutes. The first comment period was intended to be for items related to the agenda and the second was more open.
The new policy limits public comment to one period before the commissioners vote on agenda items. The single comment period will be three minutes.
The policy also clears up some public comment rules, including stating speakers can only sign up once per meeting, they have to give their name and home municipality, the comments have to be related to county business, speakers can’t cede time to other speakers, and the overall public comment period, if needed, will be no less than 30 minutes.
Many municipal governments already have time limits in place and other rules to structure public comment.
“The subject matter of all comments should be limited to items or issues which are currently before the Board for consideration, or which may come before the Board for consideration at a future meeting,” the policy states.
The commissioners and county department heads will still have the ability to answer questions asked during public comment, but a response is not required.
In response to a question from Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo, the lone Republican on the board, Bucks County Solicitor Amy Fitzpatrick said at the meeting that the commissioners chairperson, which is presently Democratic Commissioner Diane Ellis-Marseglia, would be able to extend the time for public comment if needed.
When asked by this news organization, Ellis-Marseglia said the previous system of two public comment periods “clearly wasn’t working.”
“People who were supposed to be speaking on agenda items were ignoring the rule and just speaking more broadly. We would also get complaints from those frequent public commenters that they had to wait until the end of the meeting to speak. So, we listened to them. Taking those factors into consideration, we made a change with a unanimous, bipartisan vote to begin the new term. Now there is one public comment period toward the beginning of the meeting where residents and taxpayers can speak on any topic pertaining to Bucks County business whether it’s on the agenda or not,” she said.
The Democratic majority commissioners in early 2020 began streaming the meetings live on Facebook and YouTube when they took office. Previously, only audio recordings of meetings under the Republican majority were released online following meetings.
Prior to 2022, the meetings featured a five minutes public comment session before the agenda items were voted on and a three minute period after the votes were taken.
A Bucks County Courier Times article in 2022 said DiGirolamo was behind the policy shift at the time to reduce the time each speaker had. He said it allowed for more people to speak during each meeting.
Criticism and praise of the county’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, elections, the failed sale of the Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority, handling of Right to Know requests, and other issues have become frequent topics at meetings in recent years. At times, the comments can get heated and armed security now visibly staffs the meeting room in the Bucks County Administration Building in Doylestown Borough.
In recent years, some commenters have taken to reading Bible verses, calling on taxpayers to cover one woman’s parking tickets, complaints about 5G phone service, conspiracies about COVID-19, and international affairs issues not connected to county government.
Former GOP Bucks County Commissioner Andy Warren said some members of the public make “frivolous statements and questions,” but those speaking are taxpayers and deserve to be heard.
“I think, frankly, you’ve got to have some decorum and bounds at public comment at meetings. I don’t argue that,” said Warren, who still attends meetings to ask questions of the current commissioners. “I do have a problem when government officials pretend they’re open and never reply to questions and concerns, but I think they try but there should be a follow up question (from the public) allowed. They have to give meaningful answers, and the question has to be meaningful. There shouldn’t be questions about people in Guatemala.”
The former commissioner said there should be a monthly or quarterly commissioners meetings outside of Doylestown Borough to address people around the county who might not be able to make the current Wednesday morning meetings that take place twice each month. He added the public would have to play a key role in making sure they are asking “serious questions and not just there to throw tomatoes.”