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Fredericksburg City Council votes to give public comment time back at meetings
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Fredericksburg City Council votes to give public comment time back at meetings

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Kerry Devine insisted that brevity could work in favor of residents voicing their concerns to Fredericksburg City Council.

The councilwoman said during Tuesday night’s meeting that some of the greatest speeches in American history didn’t require the five minutes some residents are requesting City Council reinstate. Public comments were limited to three minutes after the George Floyd protests.

Devine said city residents shouldn’t focus on the two minutes lost to the change, but instead consider that officials have “allowed” residents three minutes to express themselves.

Despite Devine’s suggestion, City Council voted unanimously to permit speakers in public comment to talk for five minutes instead of three. The same vote included a return to unlimited total public comment time rather than the 40-minute limit that was instituted in 2020.

Council pledged to continue discussions on how to handle written comments at a later date.

City Council is hopeful the vote shows that members are willing to engage with the public.

“Rightly or wrongly, there is a perception by some people in the community that we don’t listen,” Councilman Billy Withers said. “I’m not going to argue that point. I’m just going to say that the perception is there with some folks.”

A few of those individuals addressed their concerns with City Council at the past two meetings.

Former Councilwoman Bea Paolucci implored council to return the two minutes to residents.

The change didn’t occur at the start of the pandemic, but was instituted in July 2020 after the protest movement following the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

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Clerk of Council Tonya Lacey received 124 letters on July 14, 2020, and read aloud 34 of them, which took one hour and 40 minutes. For the Aug. 11 meeting, city officials decided to implement the three-minute rule for speaking and the 40-minute limit for overall public comment.

City public information officer Sonja Cantu noted that neighboring Spotsylvania and Stafford counties have a three-minute limit at Board of Supervisors meetings. She also said the lengthy public comments section of the meeting last July forced council to adopt a motion to suspend the rules to go past 11 p.m., an adjournment time established by City Code.

Still, Paolucci said that “rare occurrence” shouldn’t have been the catalyst for changing longstanding guidelines without a public vote.

“When [you have a lot of speakers] because it’s a hot item on the agenda, you need to hear the concerns of your citizens no matter how long it takes and no matter how late you have to stay here,” Paolucci said. “That is your job. You were elected to listen and serve the citizens of Fredericksburg.”

Paolucci said she was stunned that city officials stated they wanted to hear from protesters and then cut down the time for public comment.

Former Mayoral candidate Anne Little reminded City Council that several years ago, 100 speakers lined up to address concerns regarding the Hagerstown Suns mnor league baseball team coming to Fredericksburg.

“It was a long night of citizens’ comment and, in the end, council did reconsider,” Little said. “Hagerstown is history and the FredNats came along and gave us a much better deal. Listening to the public isn’t always a waste of time.”

In other business Tuesday night, City Council voted unanimously to grant a special use permit to Fun Land to construct a 130-foot drop tower ride at its Central Park location.

Concerns were addressed that the structure could hinder views from the Rappahannock River. Six sightlines were presented by zoning administrator James Newman that demonstrated the ride wouldn’t be viewable from the Rappahannock.

Council members also voted unanimously to authorize City Manager Tim Baroody to execute two approvals for Dominion Energy to affix fiber optic cables to existing above-ground facilities to support the Northern Neck Broadband Initiative.

Staff recommended approval because the work by Dominion wouldn’t have a negative impact on the public and the initiative will connect unserved communities to broadband.

Taft Coghill Jr: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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