James City supervisors tweak speaking policy for groups at meetings

Staff writer

The James City County Board of Supervisors came to a consensus to instruct staff to define “group” for the purposes of a public hearing at its annual organizational meeting Wednesday.

The board’s current public speaker policies make references to groups, but doesn’t provide a definition of the term, according to a county memo.

Though not a frequent problem, having a definition eliminates the need for staff to make a snap decision on whether to give a speaker approval to speak for a group, county Attorney Adam Kinsman said.

The board came to an agreement to define a group as four or more people present at the meeting, of which three or more yield their time to a spokesman among them to speak on the group’s behalf.

A person speaking on behalf of a group has 15 minutes to speak during public comment periods and public hearings. A person not speaking on behalf of a group has five minutes to speak, as per the current policy. Times remain unchanged.

Supervisors went back and forth briefly on the proposal, weighing a definition against striking out the group provision entirely for simplicity’s sake.

Supervisor John McGlennon was in favor of striking the group designation from the policy, saying there have been fewer people trying to claim the mantle of a group spokesman in recent public hearings anyway. He said creating a definition could create another front in a heated community war of words.

“You get into a gamesmanship on that kind of thing,” McGlennon said.

Creating a definition could encourage several people on one side of an issue to eschew repeating the same talking points in favor of a single speaker, which would save time during public hearings, Supervisor Michael Hipple said.

Alongside elimination of the definition, another option would be to define a group as an entity registered with the Virginia State Corporation Commission as a corporate entity, such as a limited liability company. Or a group could be an entity that has registered itself with the county, Kinsman said.

In York, there isn’t a special provision for speakers who represent the interests of a group at Board of Supervisors meetings — all speakers are allowed three minutes to speak, county spokeswoman Gail Whittaker said in an email.

At Williamsburg City Council meetings, there is likewise not a special provision for people to speak for a longer period of time on behalf of a group. All speakers are permitted three minutes to speak, according to the City Council’s policies and procedures manual.

The conversation comes as part of an ongoing on-again, off-again debate on how to hold board meetings.

Last January, the board considered a change to its meeting start times after several years of experimentation with different start times. The board voted to uphold its current 5 p.m. start times for regular meetings, where public hearings and votes take place, and 4 p.m. for its work sessions, which are geared more toward staff presentation and board debate on topics rather than actionable items. Regular meetings’ start times were pushed forward from 6:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in 2017.

In other news, the board elected its officers for 2019. Supervisor Jim Icenhour will serve as chairman, while Hipple will serve as vice chairman. Last year, Ruth Larson served in the former capacity, while Ichenour served in the latter capacity.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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