GEORGETOWN — City Council voted March 16 to give the first of two approvals needed to a revised ordinance that restructures the council meetings by moving some public comment to earlier in the agenda.
If the revised ordinance is approved, public comment on matters that are not addressed on the meeting agenda would be heard immediately before the council goes to executive session rather than after.
Last year’s switch to having separate public comment periods was met with pushback, especially among Georgetown’s African American community.
The revised ordinance considered March 16 passed in a party-line vote of 4-2 with Tamika Williams Obeng absent. Though Democrats Clarence Smalls and Hobson Henry Milton voted against the revised ordinance, both councilmen voted against changing the city’s public comment procedure in the first place last February.
Georgetown and Beyond News reported Milton voted against the revised ordinance because reverting to hearing all public comments at the beginning of a meeting was not an option presented to council.
The ordinance passed in February 2022 added a second, non-agenda public comment period to council meetings immediately prior to adjournment and following when council members meet in private session. That move touched off a wave of opposition from local residents, including the Georgetown County branch of the NAACP.
Under the current ordinance, public comments on items on a council meeting’s agenda still take place prior to any action items, near the beginning of a meeting. But the placement of non-agenda items after private session and action items can force residents to wait for hours if they wish to address the council about other issues.
South Carolina NAACP Third Vice President Marvin Neal, then the branch president of the Georgetown County NAACP, said last March that the new policy amounted to the council “telling us, as Black people, that we don’t want to hear you, the hell with you, and we don’t care.”
One attendee at the council’s Feb. 16 meeting left during the first of two executive sessions after waiting an hour to speak about his frustration in trying to pay his electric bill. The meeting would last another hour and a half before adjourning.
Prior to the March 16 vote, Councilman Jim Clements said he partly felt that the ordinance should be tabled for further discussion and said he took offense at being told he did not listen to citizens when he felt he did.
“Fifty percent of (Georgetown’s) population is African American, 50 percent is White, or other, however you want to categorize it,” Clements said. “We’ve only had two or three recurring people objecting to this, and African Americans, kindly. We’ve not had any other people standing up objecting to this. I’m having a hard time understanding why somebody is insinuating that this is earmarked toward the African American community.”
African Americans represent 53 percent of Georgetown’s population, according to an estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Smalls, the longest-serving active councilmember, countered that many of his constituents feel coming to meetings would be “a waste of time.”
Mayor Carol Jayroe said that while the Council cares about hearing all public input, “we also care about those people who want to talk on agenda items.”
She added that contacting her and councilmembers directly or at community meetings is a better way for residents to voice their concerns on issues that don’t make it onto City Council agendas.
“That’s how you voice your opinion, that’s how you talk one-on-one, that’s how you get things done,” Jayroe said. “It’s not in a public forum because you’re on (Georgetown and Beyond) News or on our website. It’s not. It’s to get things done.”
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