Fayette Commission weighs political speech concerns

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Should public comments include candidates’ campaign talking points?

Meetings of the Fayette County Board of Commissioners are well known and highly regarded for the opportunities provided for citizens to make public comments on virtually any topic.

But should that include campaigning?

As the 2016 election season gets into full swing, candidates for various state and local offices have stopped by to avail themselves of their allotted time at the podium, including one candidate for the 3rd District Congressional seat being vacated by Lynn Westmoreland.

During the commissioners’ regular comment time, which occurs after public comment and just before the end of the meeting, Commissioner Randy Ognio expressed his concern with the rise in such appearances and wondered if they shouldn’t be curtailed somewhat. Chairman Charles Oddo agreed with that assessment.

“I’m fine with them introducing themselves and telling us what they’re running for, but they don’t need to take a lot time and go into detail,” said Ognio. “We shouldn’t make this a campaign forum.”

Oddo used actual candidate forums as an example of how such speech could be regulated. “We get three minutes at a forum; we could give them three minutes here,” he suggested.

Commissioner Steve Brown, calling himself a “First Amendment guy,” said he was very hesitant to limit anyone’s opportunity to speak.

Commissioner Charles Rousseau, who noted that he and Brown were the only members of the board not running for re-election this year, acknowledged what he considered an “inherent danger” in possibly censoring what people say at meetings as well as the “equal time issue” that could present itself. He called the entire matter “a slippery slope.”

When Rousseau turned to county attorney Dennis Davenport for possible guidance, Davenport replied that the issue would make a “fantastic topic” for the board’s April 22 retreat.