Close the door on your way to the meeting

If nothing else, you have to give Sussex County Council credit for standing on its principles – even when those principles create controversy.

LESS TALK – Several months back the council put into place a more restrictive public participation policy. Anyone wanting to speak to council must sign in and limit comments to three minutes – unless Council President Vance Phillips grants more time.

In addition, there are restrictions placed on what comments can be made. Phillips makes a point to remind speakers they cannot criticize individual members of council and comments should be made on policy matters.

Before the Phillips’ administration, there was no public-participation policy in place and anyone who wanted to address council was permitted to speak with little or no restrictions.

When the policy was first put into place, Phillips also restricted any discourse between other council members and speakers. He has since backed down from that part of the policy and does allow council interaction with speakers.

Phillips is quick to point out that there is no law compelling council to provide time for public comment at a meeting. It’s something they do for the people – those folks who keep the lights on and sewer pipes full.

IT’S TRADITION – Since most can remember, the council has started each meeting with a prayer, most recently the Lord’s Prayer. And for 32 years, the council has endorsed and participated in a successful prayer breakfast.

Using the word prayer and government in the same sentence sends some people into a stupor, yet it doesn’t seem to bother most members of county council. It doesn’t bother most people who live in the county either.

Even when confronted with the fact that saying a Christian prayer or promoting an event aimed at one religion could be violations of the U.S. Constitution, they won’t back down.

It’s tradition, Phillips says.

Part of that tradition is telling outsiders who mettle in county business to stick it in their eye.

BEHIND CLOSED DOORS – When called on the religious issues by Americans United for Separation of Church and State for a second time in two years, someone decided the matter was not for the public to hear and should be discussed behind closed doors. The letter from the group was not supposed to be made public. Councilwoman Joan Deaver thought otherwise and sent it out to her constituents.

In a well-written letter to the editor in the Friday, May 22 edition of the Cape Gazette, Phillips explains the reasoning for not discussing the letter in public session. It could lead to potential litigation, he says.

And yes, government officials, under state law, can go behind closed doors to discuss matters that might involve litigation.

But, when you stop to think about it, just about decision county council makes could end up in court, so with that reasoning every discussion they have should be behind closed doors.

Public officials need to use some discretion when they go behind closed doors; just because they can doesn’t mean they have to.


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