Credit where credit is due: The Talbot County Council on Tuesday night voted unanimously to grant citizens an opportunity to speak at every Council Meeting. This is a major development, signaling a new willingness to hear in open session from the local residents about whatever is on their minds.
While Council Members expounded in turn on the merits of this idea, the proposal apparently originated, according to one member, from Keasha Haythe, who noted the need for such engagement and contacted Corey Pack to suggest it be implemented. Mr. Pack brought the idea forward. (Ms. Haythe, as you will recall, was a County Council candidate in 2018, finishing just 226 votes out of the running.)
The Council had a staffer survey many other County and municipal governments and learned that every one except Talbot permits citizens to speak up at Council meetings. Accordingly, the Council decided to go with it.
(Ironically, the County Council’s existing Rules of Procedure already states this: “Public Participation: During regular business meetings…a reasonable amount of time will be provided for members of the public to address the Council on pertinent matters.” [Section 1.E] Apparently the Council has ignored that provision for at least 20 years, and a quiescent public went along. Unbeknownst to most citizens, we also have an express right to petition the Council directly at Council meetings. [Section IV.B])
Public participation suddenly being welcomed at Council meetings is great news, and it will be incumbent upon engaged citizens not to abuse that opportunity. As discussed by Council Members on Tuesday night, there are many public and political issues that are totally outside the County’s purview, so there is no purpose bringing up your concerns with the NASA space program. More to the point, it is incumbent on all of us, if feeling a need to speak at all, to be concise, well organized, and to the point.
While procedures have not been finalized, apparently the Council will ask that a sign-up sheet be used. Speakers will be limited to some reasonable time period, perhaps three minutes, although Mr. Pack (and others) made clear that time limits would not be strictly imposed if a cogent presentation were underway. Council members also urged citizens to first take their concerns on specific topics to existing Boards (e.g., Parks and Recreation if the issue concerns a playground) rather than starting at the Council level. The Council also urged that any written materials be submitted to Council members in advance of someone speaking, just to make such exchanges more productive.
Another important development occurred on Tuesday evening, when all five Council members spoke at some length welcoming the upcoming work sessions on Short Term Vacation Rental (“STR”) regulations. The council clearly set forth a broad mandate that the STR Board listen to the public and “let’s get it right” on all issues of concern. Two public work sessions are being held by the STR Board at the Wye Room of the Community Center on Route 50, the first on Thursday August 22 at 1:00 PM and the second on Thursday August 29 at 6:00 PM. The Board requests that written comments to be submitted prior to the work sessions.
Finally on Tuesday night the Council voted to release immediately the ten emails and eight text messages they have been withholding from the public since February under a claim of executive privilege, the theory being that their release was contrary to the public interest. The vote, taken in open session, was 4-0 with Mr. Pack abstaining.
Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years.