Salem citizens can now address their city council more frequently, after policies were changed during a recent meeting.
A state law in 2020 required all elected bodies across Virginia to allot time for public hearings during regular meetings, and the city instituted a suitable comment policy by June of that year.
Changes approved by city council on Monday will allow citizens more opportunity to comment during either of Salem’s twice-monthly meetings, rather than as before, when people were only allowed to speak during the first meeting of the month.
“All citizens should have an opportunity to approach council and speak in any meeting,” said Councilman Jim Wallace, who motioned to loosen the restrictions. “It’s just the opportunity to come and speak, and not have to wait until the next meeting, because maybe somebody has something pressing they want to talk about that night.”
The board unanimously agreed to that change, effectively doubling the number of opportunities for Salem residents to address the elected council.
For the most part so far, citizens of Salem have sparingly signed up to comment, with the exception of one resident, John Breen, who appears regularly before council, as he did Monday night.
Breen addressed council in June about public comment policies—and that helped spur council to hold a work session on the matter in July. During previous discussions, Councilman Randy Foley said he was against amending public comment rules just because one person requested it.
“If we’re going to do that, I don’t see any reason why we even set time limits,” Foley said during the meeting Monday night. “Let’s just let people go for 10 minutes.”
Foley motioned to eliminate the 5-minute public-speaking time-limit, and his idea was seconded by Councilman Bill Jones. But in a 3-2 vote, the other council members, including Vice Mayor John Saunders, voted against that proposal.
“Now you’re just taking it to the farthest ends of the earth,” Saunders said. “We may have a filibuster and be here for 24 hours.”
Finally, council unanimously removed from the public comment policy that council members would not address the speakers who appeared before them. This gives council the ability to refute false or misleading information that may be shared, council members said.
Mayor Renee Turk encouraged people to address council anytime they feel the need. The next Salem City Council meeting is in city hall on Sept. 27.