Staunton City Council discusses potential changes to public participation; public weighs in

Staunton City Council meeting at City Hall in downtown Staunton.
Staunton City Council meeting at City Hall in downtown Staunton.
Updated: May. 26, 2021 at 9:06 PM EDT
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STAUNTON, Va. (WHSV) - Due to the pandemic, Staunton City Council has allowed people to participate in meetings virtually.

“It was working really well. People were having the chance to voice their concerns whether they wanted to do it on the phones or in person,” Cindy Connors, who lives in Staunton, said.

But that opportunity has been put on hold after council voted to end an emergency ordinance back in April.

Staunton City Council is considering bringing back remote participation, while also proposing some other changes to the public commenting period, like how long people have to speak.

Speakers are currently allowed five minutes to speak during Matter from the Public, but if the amendment to the memorandum is accepted, it would be cut to three minutes.

Vice-Mayor Mark Robertson is also proposing to limit the number of speakers to 10 people, five in person and five who call in.

“I’m really concerned that it’s a significant ratcheting down of the residents of Staunton ability to speak to council and share their thoughts with other residents also in a public forum,” Connors said.

But Vice-Mayor Robertson says he believes it will give more people the opportunity to share their thoughts.

“Basically, it’s the same people over and over, and if somebody wants to speak on a subject that has not had a chance to speak, we want to give them priority,” Vice-Mayor Robertson explained. “We’re just hoping to try to give more people the chance to speak.”

Vice-Mayor Robertson says while it is council’s job to listen to constituents, he would also like for council members to have the ability to respond.

During Thursday night’s city council meeting, much of the public comment from citizens addressing the proposed public comment changes.

“I think limiting it to 10 people is a little bit dangerous because then it seems, ‘Oh, let me pick my five and you pick your five or whatever. We all deserve a voice and I think we have a lot more better things to do than changing this rule,” said Staunton resident Pam Dettelbach.

While a majority of speakers spoke in favor, Yvonne Wilson of Staunton took issue with those who feel they are being silenced. She said she feels her voice is silenced being a Black, conservative Republican woman.

“I have people who are not alive anymore serving this country, who are proud Republicans who died for you,” she said to those at the meeting against Robertson’s proposal. “To act like a fool and insult city council, don’t come here and talk about how marginalized you are because a dead veteran is more marginalized than you. They can’t speak no more.”

Robertson is also proposing that councilors have up to two minutes each at the end of each meeting to address any comments made from the public and correct any misinformation that is put out.

“They want to take two minutes away from us, the citizens, each, reduce the time from five to three minutes and give it to themselves, which I thought was very frustrating,” Connors said. “I think it’s just going to be an opportunity for a councilor to pounce on the resident.”

Council was hoping to get through all of the proposed changes at Thursday’s meeting and be able to vote on them at the first meeting in June.

The following is an email sent to all councilors from a member of the community:

Your memorandum limiting the amount of speakers shows you are not up for the job you committed to. Your continued effort to silence our community shows lack of consideration for the people in the community.

*Robertson, the idea of you taking the last word after every matter of the public disturbs me and my peers. It seem that at every turn, you want to take the last word and not actually listen. I am also disgusted by the aggressive finger-pointing that continues to happen. For example you pointed your finger aggressively at Council member Meade because she said the word “racism”. If you cannot handle hearing basic words that deal with human rights and equality, your are in the WRONG POSITION. Your aggression against women in particular is concerning and reflects badly on the community. I hope you are aware that we are watching you and your behavior.

Also, I believe you failed to realize that Council Member Meade was making a point and remark on gentrification and classism, which most of the community agreed with.

We need our council members to listen to listen and not listen in order to speak.

I am appalled that we are wasting so much time arguing over basic rights rather than focusing on the communities needs. This is despicable! There is a JOB to be done. So much to do and you want to have everyone wasting their time fighting for freedom of speech.

I’ve never seen a city Council gets so little done in so much time and waste the community tax payer money on taking away rights of the People.

I applaud the choice you guys made last week after hearing us all out in regards to the rezoning changes, but it seems that that has just encouraged some of you to attempt to silence the community more.

Furthermore, to the four of you who have voted against allowing the community to use the telecommunication system, I would like to make a motion that if you voted against it, you must stand for the entire city Council meeting – just like most of the community members are having to do. Maybe that would humble you into recognizing what many have doing to take part and be active in our community and how it hurts the disabled, parents, workers, etc.

If you move forward with this memorandum, we will continue to protest even harder. We will be calling, emailing and actively protesting and can show you how we can and will take up your time and we will be heard.

We will not roll over like you are hoping we will.

If you want peace and respect in your position, skip the memorandum. DO YOUR JOBS that you were hired for. You WORK FOR US. We will see y’all tomorrow and we’re bringing even more people this time than last time, so be prepared to be listening to a lot of angry voices.

Be prepared to listen to hear the community- not to listen to talk back, please.

- C. Female Business Owner

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