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New rules for people who want to make their voices heard to MB city council

The Sun News file photo
The Sun News file photo jbell@thesunnews.com

Three...two...one....Time!

A clock with big red numbers now sits on the dais as Grand Strand residents prepare to give public comment during Myrtle Beach City Council meetings.

Those wanting to speak about items on the agenda are limited to three minutes, one of the newest changes after two new council members and a new mayor were sworn in.

But the change is miniscule as the city government continues to roll out ordinances aimed at making council meetings run smoother and faster.

During the last city council meeting an ordinance was passed setting rules of order and cutting the number of public comment periods down from two to one.

“We want people’s comments and input, but we also have to run an effective council meeting and be mindful of everybody’s time,” Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said. “We’re there to get through our agenda items, and sometimes that is where the main focus needs to be, and we’re still giving people the time that they need to address their individual concerns.”

However, the changes have sparked controversy among city and non-city residents.

On the Facebook page Myrtle Beach Rising, Beverly Pridgen Davidson, who owns commercial property in a doughnut hole, an area surrounded by the City of Myrtle Beach, but not in city limits, posted:

“Our City Council & Mayor keep passing laws to Silence Us! We are allowing them to do just that. They have extra police at council meetings to arrest & take to jail anyone who doesn't agree with city council. Anytime you have to reduce your issue to 3 minutes, it is frustrating. The way they look at you, like you are an idiot, is frustrating. The things they are doing or not doing that concerns you are frustrating. Not being able to speak if you are not a city resident, even if your property abuts the city, or if you are a business owner in the city limits, it is frustrating."

But for Davidson, the problem started before the new council took their seats. Davidson said the former city council would let you speak over the allotted time, but that "they didn't listen."

The other problem, Davidson said, comes with being in a doughnut hole. Davidson said she now has little opportunity to speak to council due to the new rules, but that she is affected by decisions made in the city.

"When you are in a doughnut hole, you have all the problems that the city has," Davidson said. "You don't have the problems the county has, you have the problems the city has because their homeless, their prostitutes, the drug problems. Their problems are encroaching on my property.

"I have legitimate reasons to need to talk to them from time to time and they pretty much made it so I can't."

The changes

The ordinance passed will allow city residents, business owners and property owners to speak before non-residents.

“It allows those folks to go first to make sure council has an opportunity to hear from the people that have the most significant input and most significant stakeholders,” City Manager John Pedersen said during the last council meeting.

The other thing the ordinance does is remove the ‘Non-agenda items from public’ section from the beginning of the meeting, after the minutes are approved. Now, the public will have an opportunity to speak after the last consent agenda item is discussed by council members.

Public discussion will be held for 30 minutes.

Bethune said there are other ways to get in touch with council members, with direct phone numbers and emails posted on the city website, and the new ‘Dear City Council Members…’ where concerned citizens can email members about specific issues.

The final thing the ordinance does is establish rules of order to limit the use of obscene language, ‘fighting words’ or unnecessary booing or clapping. If a person does not listen after two warnings they can be escorted out by a police officer.

“It is intended to not only foster civil and kind communication between the board members, or the council and the public, but also amongst each other, that the board members will respect each other and treat each other in a civil manner, and so will those of us who are on council,” Bethune said. “So it’s really a two-way street, it’s not meant to be one-way at all.

“Unfortunately, in today’s society, we have to protect our boards and our commissions and ourselves and the public.”

The ordinance does not apply just to city council meetings, but to all government meetings including boards and commissions.

How do the changes compare to other Grand Strand cities?

In North Myrtle Beach, the city offers one designated public comment session at the end of the meeting. Those speaking are limited to three minutes. A warning light will show for 30 seconds left on the timer.

In Surfside Beach, there are two public comment sessions, one in the beginning and one at the end. During the first session speakers can talk for three minutes on agenda-items only. During the second session, speakers can talk for five minutes. The session is titled general comments.

In Conway, there is one public comment session at the beginning of the meeting.

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