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The Carroll County Board of Commissioners should rethink its decision to impose limitations on residents speaking out during the public comment portion of meetings.

The board last week voted 4-1 to approve an amendment restricting people to talking only about issues the commissioners are dealing with. Residents bringing up ethical concerns and personal attacks were apparently a concern among some of the board members. The change says people can no longer do that.

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In a perfect world everyone would be able to always communicate in productive ways and would always maintain a basic courtesy and respect for others. We don't live in a perfect world. As public officials, our elected should expect to hear from individuals who are knowledgeable about the topic they are talking about and who present well-reasoned arguments that stick to the facts that illustrate their point. But the commissioners also have to understand that some people express themselves differently. In highly contentious issues, emotions are going to play a big role in what people say and how they say it. Then there are those whose only aim is to hurl insults and create dissention and disruption.

The whole point of having a specific public comment period during meetings is so people have an avenue to address the board about any topic they want. Major issues coming before the board – votes on budgets, zoning changes, regulations – already have their own public hearings where people interested in that specific topic can offer their input. Allowing people the opportunity to address the board about other topics should be part of that "improving communication" goal that the board members said they want to focus on, but that can't happen if the board begins restricting what it is people can or cannot say.

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Members of the public wishing to address the board already face a fairly tight time limit. Even if they don't like what is being said, board members should be able to listen courteously to the person addressing them.

The board has said that it wants to improve communication. A big part of that is listening. If anything, the board should lean toward greater leeway in letting residents express themselves. Otherwise, if their intention is to dictate what people can and can't say, there really is no point to having a public comment period where the public is muzzled from commenting.

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