AG: Board can take public comment

Published 11:48 pm Friday, September 18, 2015

The state attorney general has issued an opinion regarding public comments at meetings of local wetlands boards that stemmed from an incident at a Suffolk Wetlands Board meeting.

Attorney General Mark R. Herring wrote that public comment is allowed at the meetings when invited by the board, even when the matter at hand does not require an official public hearing.

“It is common practice for the chair of a deliberative body to permit comment by non-members,” Herring wrote.

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The issue stemmed from the June 19, 2014, meeting of the Suffolk Wetlands Board, which is appointed by City Council and required by state law.

The wetlands board is responsible for reviewing requests for permits for the use, alteration or development of wetlands. The board also reviews violations of wetlands regulations.

At the meeting in question, the Suffolk Wetlands Board was holding a regular meeting and reviewing a shoreline project in the Hillpoint area.

“The wetlands board was extremely concerned about the way that development was going,” said John Newhard, chair of the shoreline committee for the Nansemond River Preservation Alliance.

Newhard was accompanied at the meeting by Elizabeth Taraski, executive director of the alliance, as well as Byron Carmean, an expert arborist.

The chair of the board, Robert Johnson, noted he wanted to hear from the public about the project. But associate city attorney Karla Williams stopped him.

“The assistant city attorney is saying, ‘No, you’re not entitled to do that,’” Newhard recalled. “We were dumbfounded. There were people there that had expertise, and this action prevented them from speaking.”

An ongoing discussion between the board and the public is crucial, Newhard and Taraski said.

“At times, the citizens may have more knowledge of a particular area,” Taraski said. “They can contribute to the ongoing discussion the board is having at that time. It’s to help them make a better informed decision.”

The Nansemond River Preservation Alliance asked Delegate Chris Jones to request the opinion from Herring’s office. It affirmed the concept of open dialogue.

“There are no circumstances or types of hearings where the statute bars or restricts a local board from receiving public comment,” Herring wrote. “Because there is neither a state law nor a local ordinance prohibiting the Board from receiving public comment where public comment is not required, because it is common practice for the chair of a deliberative body to permit comment by non-members, and because of the overarching importance of open government and free discussion with citizens, as articulated by FOIA, it is my opinion that the Board may from time to time choose to permit public comment when public comment is not required.”

Newhard said he was pleased with the ruling and hopes it will be extended to other public bodies as well.

“I thought the opinion was very well reasoned and very well written,” he said.