In addition to a highly controversial decision on a land use variance, the Board of County Commissioners violated a recently-passed ordinance on public speaking in meetings and its own policy on “civil” debate among commissioners.
When commissioners allowed Billy Traylor to directly address Commissioner Joanna Bryan, approach the podium again without being acknowledged and permitted “insulting” comments to be directed to Bryan by Traylor and other commissioners, they were in violation of an ordinance approved last October.
And when commissioners directed “insulting” and derogatory comments toward Bryan they were in violation of their own “Pledge of Civility” policy approved more than a year ago.
Commission chair Ward McDaniel attempted in January to set a new tone for a board that was embroiled in heated meetings for the last three months of 2013.
He sought to move beyond the final months of 2013 when the board was roiled by heated arguments among staff.
Saying that what he proposed was only a reflection of state law, McDaniel said, “This year will be different. I will conduct the meetings differently than they have in the past.”
He said he wanted discussion among commissioners, staff and the public to be “professional, kind and courteous” and said the meeting room was no place to air “dirty laundry.”
He said it was time to stop the contentiousness that has marked recent months to “get some things accomplished.”
The tone of that initial meeting of the year was continued by Port St. Joe resident Elaine Lerch, saying she spoke for many in the public as she urged commissioners to stop bickering and repeated attacks against Bryan, which Lerch said many perceived as based on gender.
“We do not find this behavior acceptable nor do we, as citizens of the county, want this behavior to represent us to the wide audience …,” Lerch said. “We want this behavior to stop.”
Lerch said respect for the BOCC must be restored just as respect among individual commissioners and respect for all citizens must be restored and only the BOCC “can do this.”
“As county commissioners you have it in your power to perfect a code of conduct that we all can be proud of,” Lerch said. “We have just entered the new year – please view this as an opportunity for a fresh start and an opportunity to change the negative perceptions held regarding the Gulf County Commission.”
Further, commissioners have recently twice stated a wish to return to the dictates of a “Pledge of Civility” passed over two years ago and aimed at tamping temperatures and raising the level of discourse in BOCC meetings.
Since that Jan. 7 meeting, the BOCC had taken on a gentler tone, but that changed last week when heated debate was stirred by a variance request centered on a parcel of land that has generated controversy for years.
And it continued later when former commissioner Billy Traylor spoke stridently about remarks allegedly made by Bryan during a March meeting of the Apalachee Regional Planning Council.
Traylor quickly directed his comments to Bryan, in direct violation of the speaking ordinance.
That ordinance prohibits speakers from directing comments toward an individual commissioner or staff member.
Public comments must be directed to the chair – Traylor repeatedly spoke at Bryan in increasingly heated words and volume and was later joined by commissioners in the grilling.
In addition, after sitting down, Traylor returned to the podium though he was not acknowledged or recognized by the chair as required under the public speaking ordinance.
The exchange ended with Traylor hurling an insult toward Bryan - again prohibited under the public speaking ordinance.
Under the ordinance the chair is charged with telling any speaker to sit down or be removed for such conduct.
Further, commissioners and staff launched attacks at Bryan, with pointed words exchanged about the ARPC meeting – none of it pertaining to county operations, contrary to McDaniel’s statements about “airing dirty laundry.”
Commissioner Carmen McLemore on several occasions questioned the veracity of statements made by Bryan, four times interrupted her comments to inject disparaging comments and at one point made a comment about Bryan and a dog.
Meanwhile, Bryan was interrupted at least seven times by commissioners while attempting to speak and was twice gaveled out of order by McDaniel while trying to provide her position of several issues, both contrary to the board’s “civility” policy.
One resident took to the podium and said, “Commissioner Bryan is my commissioner and I am offended by the way she is being treated.”