Faced with dozens of residents wanting to weigh in about a possible mask-wearing mandate and other issues, the Sandy Springs City Council July 21 changed its policy to limit public comments and require they be submitted ahead of time. The move drew objections from some of the residents observing the virtual council meeting.

The council now will require people to submit comments by noon on the day of the meeting. The comments will not be heard during a meeting and will only be made public when a meeting summary gets posted a few days later. Residents can post public comments via the city’s website using a public comment form.

Councilmember Tibby DeJulio proposed the changes to the public comment policy during a meeting held virtually because of a spike in COVID-19 cases in Fulton County and the city.

City Clerk Raquel Gonzalez told Councilmember Andy Bauman that 53 public comments had been submitted for the meeting. The old policy allowed comment submissions up until the start of the meeting. Bauman said with the council’s 3-minute rule for each comment, if members had to hear all the comments, they would be in their meeting all night.

“It is a lot of comments, but I hope we can acknowledge some unease with what we are doing here tonight,” Bauman said. “I don’t know if there’s a great solution other than start digging into the comments.”

As the council discussed the public comment policy, residents watching the meeting on a Facebook livestream took issue with what they were proposing.

“I am VERY disappointed in this city council and their decision not to make the public comments heard tonight. Since mask wearing is on the agenda, how will you know what your constituents are thinking?” Donna Smith Aronson asked in the Facebook comments.

“A friendly reminder that Atlanta City Council listened to over 1,000 public comments earlier this month. I do wonder if, in the future, when we’re able to have public comments in person again, we’ll be similarly dismissed when there are more than the council is willing to listen to,” said Brit DeRosa in the Facebook comments.

Georgia’s Open Meetings Act does not require that cities take public comment, according to the website of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the law.

“The OMA does not grant a right to speak at meetings. The OMA does grant a right to attend meetings. It is the local government’s choice about whether to allow public comment at open meetings,” the Attorney General’s Office said in its FAQs on the Open Meetings and Open Records acts.

DeJulio’s motion also required that all public comments be reduced to the written word, typed and no more than two pages long.

Gonzalez told the City Council she had combined all of the July 21 comments into a single, compressed folder about 15 minutes before the meeting and emailed that to them. More comments arrived after her email, she said.

“It’s a balancing act, if comments are germane to actions that are being considered tonight,” Bauman said.

“We don’t want the city clerk to interpret the comments. They should be given us to just as they are received,” DeJulio said.

The new policy only applies to virtual public meetings and does not apply to public hearings, which have their own set of rules.

Gonzalez said a quick review of subject lines for the night’s public comments showed many dealt with face masks and a possible mandate. Board of Appeals meetings, sidewalks and cable TV service also were topics.

City Attorney Dan Lee said the city is not required to have public comment. But when it does open public comment, it cannot restrict what is said or the topics discussed.

“What you do for one, you have to do for all,” Lee said.

Bob Pepalis

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Reporter Newspapers.