Prince William County supervisors will consider setting restrictions on how residents address them in public board meetings in a move to prevent emotionally charged outbursts.
New rules proposed yesterday by Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) would prohibit speakers with personnel disputes or lawsuits pending against the county from speaking at "citizens time," which is set aside at each weekly meeting of the Board of County Supervisors.
Speakers also would be banned from singling out specific supervisors for criticism, Barg said. The three-minute time limit for speakers would not change, and no limits would be placed on the number of people who could address the board.
"I am not trying to muzzle people, and I believe citizens should come and speak," Barg said. "But if a person has a problem related to personnel or litigation, they should deal with the staff, not the board."
Supervisors decided to take up the proposed change at an upcoming work session in which they will explore how other jurisdictions handle the rights of residents to address public officials. In neighboring Fairfax County, residents may address the board just a few times a year, outside of public hearings.
The Prince William board's frustration with the mood at citizens time has mounted in recent months over two incidents that exploded into public view. In one incident in the fall, a minor personnel matter became a major public embarrassment after the county's Public Works Department fired a probationary employee, Wally Jabbs, a construction company owner from Occoquan hired to dispense building permits from the front desk.
Jabbs's family and friends launched a campaign on his behalf at board meetings, publicly accusing county officials of failing to provide an adequate explanation for his dismissal. Supervisors eventually directed County Executive Bern Ewert to provide Jabbs with an explanation for the dismissal.
More recently, a Dale City man, Timothy Johnson, has spoken at citizens time on several occasions, accusing the county of negligence in an incident in August involving his 10-year-old son. Johnson says his son, who could not swim, was trapped underwater in a pool at the Dale City Recreation Center and left disabled after lifeguards failed to bring him to safety in time.
The county attorney's office met with Johnson, investigated the matter and concluded that there was no wrongdoing by lifeguards or other county employees, and that the child's disability was not the result of the incident. But the distraught father has appeared before the board to express his anger at many meetings, including yesterday's, when he became agitated and accused individual supervisors of wrongdoing.
"We're trying to avoid just what you saw today, which was horrible," Barg said of Johnson's outburst. "He comes here for show time."
Barg and other supervisors noted that in cases such as these, which involve personnel matters and potential litigation, they are advised by county attorneys to remain silent because of the sensitive nature. The result is that their hands are tied, and tensions grow between the board and frustrated residents.
"It appears often to citizens that we're not responsive, when the items are not in our purview," Supervisor Mary K. Hill (R-Coles) said. "It puts us all in a very bad position when we can't respond. This is not a forum to discover the truth but to express an opinion."
The board instituted its public speaking policy four years ago. Before then, short of a public hearing, residents could address the board only on matters that were not on the supervisors' agenda for a given meeting. The policy was changed to give the public more opportunity to address the board.
Supervisor Ruth T. Griggs (R-Occoquan) said she opposes any public speaking limits.
"We're putting an undue burden on people to know what's in litigation and what's not," she said. "They should be able to come and say what's on their mind."
The proposed restrictions would not silence many of the other residents who regularly address the board with their frustrations with county life or politics--and have no lawsuit or pending personnel dispute.
One such speaker, Theresa Menz, has become a thorn in supervisors' side, with constant complaints about shoddy construction work on her new home in a Woodbridge development. Menz said any restrictions on citizens time would only impel her to become more vocal.
"I don't think Supervisor Barg is concerned about the citizens at all," Menz said. "It's a control issue. She just wants us to shut up and go away."