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Commissioners shun plan to allow more public speaking at meetings
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A proposal to allow county residents more freedom to speak at Hall County Board of Commissioners meetings failed to get enough support from commissioners at Monday’s work session.

Commissioner Craig Lutz had suggested that the public should be allowed to speak on any county topic during commissioner meetings instead of a more restrictive policy currently in place. However, the four other commissioners shot down the proposal.

The current policy, which will remain in place, allows public comment at meetings, but speakers can only talk about matters on the meeting’s agenda.

However, residents can talk about any matter of their choosing at work sessions that are typically held at 3 p.m. on the Monday or Tuesday before Thursday commission meetings.

The issue of public comment came up for discussion after Hall County resident and frequent public speaker Doug

Aiken complained about being denied the right to speak last month. Aiken said he wanted to speak about the county’s pending sale of the jail on Main Street in Gainesville, which was not being discussed by commissioners at that meeting.

Aiken called the public speaking policy a restriction of his First Amendment right to petition his government.

In his proposal to change the policy, Lutz argued that most county residents are at their jobs when work sessions are being held. Broadening public speaking at the County Commission’s 6 p.m. meetings would allow more residents a chance to be involved, Lutz said.

County Chairman Tom Oliver, however, spoke in favor of keeping the current policy.

“Individual commissioners can call on you (at meetings) and then you can talk about whatever you want,” Oliver said on Monday.

Commissioner Scott Gibbs has said commissioners are available to talk with constituents by phone or email before meetings. Gibbs also said that opening public comment at commission meetings could turn into a free-for-all that could take up too much time.

On Monday, Aiken blasted the board for its decision — pointing out that the commissioners regularly talk about transparency and public involvement, but didn’t back it up by allowing residents to freely speak their minds.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said.

Also discussed at the work session on Monday:

• Commissioners are set to give final approval of a new alcohol ordinance on Thursday, allowing for Sunday sales in unincorporated Hall County.

Once in place, businesses with up-to-date alcohol licenses will not need to complete additional paperwork to sell on Sunday, said Susan Rector, director of the county’s Business License Division. Based on reports from county officials to the contrary, The Times initially reported on Monday that new paperwork was needed to sell on Sunday.

• The Hall County Correctional Institution could see more state inmates if commissioners sign off on a new inmate capacity agreement with the Georgia Department of Corrections. The county facility, which currently houses up to 160 state inmates at a time, would have 60 more if the agreement is approved.

Correctional Institution Warden Avery Niles said more inmate capacity was opened up when the Hall County Sheriff’s Office decided to reduce its inmate capacity at the institution. Niles went to the state to see if it was willing to use the county’s additional space.

“I hate to see empty beds,” Niles said.

The new deal is expected to bring in as much as $438,000 of additional revenue.