What should the city of Sandy Springs do about a glut of public comments at meetings held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic? District 5 City Councilman Tibby DeJulio may have a solution.

“We’re in such unprecedented time and people want to have a way to submit comments. We should put in a deadline on when people can submit public comments,” he said, later adding the deadline should be noon, six hours before each meeting starts, instead of shortly beforehand.

At its meeting July 21, which was online due to the outbreak, the council voted 6-0, while passing the agenda, to approve amending its public comment policy. The change, which came after 53 individuals submitted comments (possibly a record), only impacts virtual meetings since individuals can speak in person at regular meetings, with a time limit of three minutes. Residents can also submit comments via email for both in-person and virtual meetings, and those comments are limited to two pages each.

But none of the 53 comments were read at the July 21 meeting, with Mayor Rusty Paul saying the council does not have to read the comments at the meeting but that they’ll be included in its final record with the meeting minutes on the city’s website.

City Attorney Dan Lee agreed, saying, “There’s no requirement that you have public comment. The forum is open and cannot be restricted as far as what is said or the topics of what is said. What you have to do for one you have to do for all. The procedure that is outlined is to treat them all the same.”

Paul decided not to have the comments read at the meeting to save time. At previous in-person meetings, in the name of efficiency, he’s not allowed some individuals to speak if they had a similar comment and/or stance to what an earlier person gave.

During the July 21 meeting, which was live-streamed on Facebook, at least two residents posted comments saying they were disappointed none of the public comments were read there. One pointed out the lengths a neighboring city recently went to in order to give each commenter his or her due time.

Two Atlanta City Council meetings in the past month each lasted two days because the council received 1,073 and 1,251 public comments about the fiscal 2021 budget and public safety reform legislation, respectively, which took at least 15 hours each to be read into the record.

Before the vote, DeJulio asked City Clerk Raquel Gonzalez, who emailed the 53 comments to the full council 15 minutes before the meeting, what their subjects were. Gonzalez said the vast majority were about a possible mask mandate in Sandy Springs since the council was voting on a resolution to encourage all to wear masks in public, and the rest were about a handful of topics.

District 4 Councilwoman Jody Reichel asked if at least the comments regarding masks could be read at the meeting, and District 6 Councilman Andy Bauman asked if by not reading the comments at the meeting, it could disqualify any actions/votes it took. But Lee said not having them read would cause any problems.

Also at the meeting, the council voted 6-0 to table an Aug. 4 public hearing about changing the name of Lake Forrest Drive and Forrest Lake Drive for a future date because the city wants to get in-person comments from individuals about it. The name change was requested by Paul since some believe the streets may have been named or Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

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