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County Board urged to expand public comment, but it's not likely

Current rules prohibit (in theory) more than one speaker on a given topic

It’s an admittedly imperfect system even in the best of times, but Arlington County Board members are sticking with their rules for the public-comment sessions that open each month’s board meeting.

“We do have reasons” for the process that is followed, County Board Chairman Libby Garvey said when the procedure was questioned during the May 18 board meeting.

Local resident Sam Lavenson turned out to query why board members impose a limit of one speaker on any given topic during the sessions, which typically run from 8:30 to around 9 a.m.

He proposed multiple speakers be allowed per topic, “up to a certain limit, at least three to five.”

“The larger the sample size, the likelier [public comment] is to represent” views of the general public, Lavenson said.

Board members have held to the one-speaker-per-topic rule for years, to prevent their sessions from turning into free-for-alls. The goal is to “keep the meeting moving,” Garvey said (even though, at times, responses from board members to speakers take up more time than the speakers themselves).

As Lavenson noted, what constitutes any particular topic is “vague” and subject to differing interpretations.

He was proved right that very meeting, where, after the first public-speaker pushed for Arlington leaders to make a public statement on the Israel-Hamas fighting, a succession of other speakers came to speak ostensibly on other subjects, but worked the Mideast tensions and calls for a ceasefire into their remarks.

The speaker following Lavenson, William Walls, seemed to echo the call for more public-comment opportunities.

“Elected officials are meant to represent everyone, not just a select few,” he said.

Those who wish to advocate changes in the public-comment process should mark their calendars: Board members adopt the rules at their annual organizational meeting in early January each year. While not set in stone (there have been mid-year course corrections), those rules generally hold until the next year arrives, and sometimes do not change over the course of multiple years.

County Board members also accept input from the community during “Open-Door Monday” events where a board member is available for 90 minutes in the early evening.