People who address the Harford County Council during the citizens’ comment period will be limited to three minutes per person — five minutes if they represent a group — as the council moves to keep speakers from running long on their remarks.
Council President Richard Slutzky, who said he was “exercising my authority as the chair” of the council, announced the time limits during the Nov. 21 council meeting.
The council president can establish time limits of three and five minutes, if a large group of people want to speak during a public hearing or legislative session, according to a section of the council’s rules of procedure provided by County Council Attorney Charles E. Kearney, Jr.
“For this evening, and in future meetings, we will be going to the three-minute, five-minute allowance for speaking [at the legislative session],” Slutzky said.
Slutzky wrote in a follow-up email Friday that he has “informally relaxed” the time requirement if a few people are signed up to speak during meetings, but speakers “started to abuse the privilege and dragged their comments out for more than 20 minutes.”
He stated that council members agreed the rules should be “consistently enforced” after hearing concerns from people in the audience at meetings and those watching online or on television.
Councilman Mike Perrone stressed during the Nov. 21 meeting that “freedom of speech in this country is sacrosanct.”
“I think it’s important that people realize, and I think I can speak for all my colleagues on this one, that this is a matter that we take very seriously,” Perrone said.
Perrone explained how Bel Air resident John Mallamo, a regular speaker at council meetings, spent a combined 51 minutes over four council meetings in October and November, talking about his concerns with the county’s handling of the expansion of the Harford Airport near Churchville.
Mallamo, who did not attend the Nov. 21 meeting, spent 24 minutes on the airport topic at the prior council meeting on Nov. 14, according to Perrone.
“There is a difference between government restricting speech in order to quiet dissent and restricting speech as a practical matter in order to ensure that others have the opportunity to be heard as well,” Perrone said.
Zoning hearing examiner Robert Kahoe recommended in 2014 that the county grant a zoning variance and special exceptions to expand the airport runway and improve facilities.
The recommendation was upheld by the County Council, acting in its dual role as the Board of Appeals and by Harford Circuit Court Judge Emory A. Plitt Jr. in 2015.
Mallamo said, in his comments this fall, that the council should investigate how the county’s planning department handled the expansion.
Slutzky told Mallamo on Nov. 7 that he had “lost at every point – Circuit Court, FAA, MDOT” and that his arguments had been “debunked and denied at every point in the process.”
Mallamo acknowledged that, but stressed he wants the planning department “to enforce the code.”
“Until last week I wouldn’t have deemed such a position to be necessary,” Perrone said of the time limits.
He said there were several other people signed up to speak after Mallamo at prior council meetings.
Perrone said he does not want people to be “turned off” from attending and speaking at council meetings because they run too late.
“This is not for the purpose of restricting or silencing anyone, but for the purpose of ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to speak without having to wait an inordinate amount of time to do so,” Perrone said.
Three people spoke during the citizen comment portion of the Nov. 21 meeting, and each stayed within the three-minute limit.
“I blame you, Mr. President, for allowing that person to speak for 24 minutes, and it’s a shame that someone else’s actions, speaking so long, hurts others,” Bel Air resident Bill Wehland, another frequent public speaker, told Slutzky.
Slutzky said the council will amend its rules of procedure to reflect the time limits when it meets in December. The next council meeting is scheduled for Dec. 5, according to the Harford County website.
The council president said, even with time limits on speaking, citizens can submit “as many pages of written testimony as they so desire,” which the council administrator will then copy and distribute to each of the seven council members.
Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this report.