Parkersburg council public forum debate continues

Fox wants item put back on agenda

PARKERSBURG — The topic of what citizens can talk about in the public forum and for how long may be headed back to Parkersburg City Council’s agenda.

On Jan. 9, council voted 5-4 to amend a resolution requiring a sign-in sheet for the forum to say only items on the meeting’s agenda could be discussed. That followed a 6-3 vote to expand the time limit for individual speakers in the 30-minute forum from two minutes to five.

The overall resolution passed 8-1.

The move came after the public forum was twice altered in 2017, once to split it into two sessions — one for agenda items and one for other topics — then to re-establish a single forum with no more than two minutes per speaker. The most recent change was criticized by some for limiting the scope of discussion and coming as an amendment after that meeting’s public forum.

“We didn’t get to hear from the people at all,” said Councilman Jeff Fox, who voted against the amendment to restrict topics to the agenda. “I believe it caught some councilpeople off guard, and it certainly caught the general public off guard. … It just seemed to be a very different order of business all of a sudden.”

Fox is proposing another resolution to allow any topic to be addressed in the forum, with a three-minute time limit for speakers. He cited multiple polls, including one at NewsandSentinel.com and another he posted on his “Fox for Parkersburg District 9” Facebook page, showing people disagreed with last month’s change.

Fox posted the text of the resolution on Facebook and said so far he only had one other sponsor for it. It takes three to get an item on the council agenda.

Another sponsor withdrew from the resolution, Fox said, after being lobbied by other council members and saying there weren’t enough votes to pass it. He declined to name the other council member.

“The whole idea of sponsoring this is just to have a conversation,” Fox said. “It may or may not pass.”

That third sponsor might be Councilman Bob Mercer, who said Monday he would sponsor the resolution but doesn’t support the change itself.

“I’m open to talking about it,” he said, adding, “I think we ought to leave it alone for a while.”

Mercer seconded Councilman Mike Reynolds’ motion to make the public forum for agenda items only.

“We keep getting the same thing over and over again: ‘Parkersburg’s dead last; you didn’t pass the NDO,'” Mercer said. “We get it.”

Mercer was referring to the hashtag #PKBDeadLast touted by members of Fairness Parkersburg after a report by two lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer civil rights advocacy groups ranked Parkersburg last among seven West Virginia cities on equality criteria including the presence of a nondiscrimination ordinance, like the one council voted down 6-3 in August.

Debate over the NDO dominated public forums last year and prompted the creation of a second forum. It has remained a topic of conversation, although not as frequently or as long, in the months since the vote.

“I understand why some people are frustrated by what they feel is a pretty continuous commentary on one topic,” Fox said. “But you don’t silence everyone just so you don’t have to hear about one thing you don’t want to hear about.”

Council President John Reed has previously said people who want to speak to council can do so outside the meeting. If they want their statement to be part of the official record, he suggested they submit a letter to their council member, which can then be received and filed by council.

Mercer said he believes the city has more important concerns than to keep going back and forth on the rules of the forum.

“My opinion is we’re wasting an awful lot of time on procedural stuff that should have been taken care of a long time ago,” he said.

The next regular council meeting is 7:30 p.m. Feb. 13. The agenda will be released later this week.