Mayor Sandy Roberson said he believes there has been a lot of confusion about the rules one must follow when addressing the City Council during the public comment phase of council regular meetings.
Roberson, in a posting on Friday via Facebook and YouTube, sought to make clear the procedure for providing remarks when at the speaker’s podium. At the same time, Roberson made clear the City of Rocky Mount values information and thoughts from local residents.
“These rules are not meant to stifle your opinions nor to intimidate you, but to allow you to have an uninterrupted three minutes to tell us what’s on your mind,” Roberson said in the posting.
“We need your input and encourage you to let us know what you think — and that’s the good, the bad and the ugly,” Roberson said. “You know, we represent you and we want to hear from you often.
“It is necessary to keep negative comments to constructive criticism,” Roberson said.
During the public comment period, people are allowed up to three minutes to address the council. This part of the council regular meeting is lively and at times contentious.
Roberson, in the posting on Friday, re-emphasized that any comments should be directed to the council as a whole and not to any council members individually or to the municipal staff members.
Roberson said in most cases the council members will not comment but may refer the matter to City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney or to the municipal staff for a follow-up.
Roberson also said speakers are asked to give their remarks in a civil, non-argumentative and respectful manner.
Roberson also said that personal attacks with the potential to disrupt the meeting will not be tolerated and that a speaker who does so will be asked to sit down or face removal from the meeting.
Roberson also said that if an organized group wants to speak about a common issue, then the group is asked to designate one person to provide the group’s comments.
“I hope this clears up any misunderstanding,” Roberson said. “My enforcement of these rules should not be taken personally nor are they intended to offend. These are just rules. I appreciate your understanding and your cooperation.”
Moments before the public comment period during the July 27 council regular meeting, Roberson said, “I don’t believe that I’ve done as an effective a job of managing this process or portion of the meeting the last couple of meetings.”
Roberson then, as a reminder, read aloud the rules.
During that public comment period, one of the speakers, Perry LaGrange, stated his opposition to the municipality proposing to paint the words “Black Lives Matter” on the rooftop of an old track-side loading dock downtown.
Councilman T.J. Walker has been participating in council meetings via teleconferencing.
LaGrange, at one point in his remarks, pointed out that Walker’s grandfather the Rev. Thomas L. Walker is a preacher at one of the largest churches in Rocky Mount.
Roberson asked LaGrange to refrain from speaking to council members directly, but moments later, LaGrange said he wanted to tell Councilman Walker he should tell his grandfather “that BLM is anti-God and anti-Christ.”
“And I’m sure Mr. Blackwell is a proud father of his son,” LaGrange said, a reference to Councilman Reuben Blackwell and his son, activist Cooper Blackwell.
Roberson told LaGrange, “Excuse me, sir. I mean, please, don’t direct this to individual council members.”
When LaGrange reached his three-minute limit, Roberson thanked him.
LaGrange asked, “Can I finish?”
Roberson told him, “No sir, your time is up” and again thanked him.
Another speaker, Dr. Lisa Nelson, blasted real estate investor Jesse Gerstl, who had told the Telegram he believes the issue with revitalizing downtown is the lack of a plan by the City of Rocky Mount.
Nelson said her understanding is that Gerstl has several properties he has sat on for more than two years “and really has done zero development.”
Councilwoman Chris Miller has been participating in council meetings via teleconferencing.
Gerstl serves on the Central City Revitalization Panel. Miller serves on the CCRP as a member of the pro-downtown rehabilitation group called Downtown Renaissance.
Nelson, in commenting about Gerstl, pointed out that she lives in Miller’s neighborhood.
Nelson said her question to Miller was, “Would you allow someone to have a house in our neighborhood, sit on it for two years, that had been charged to get the house developed and rehabbed and it’s still in disrepair, still falling apart?
“Would you allow that to happen in our neighborhood, because if you wouldn’t, then you should treat the downtown neighborhood the same way you would treat your own neighborhood,” Nelson said.
Roberson did not ask Nelson to cease directing remarks at Miller.
Nelson, as part of her remarks about Gerstl, also asked, “Is Downtown Renaissance going to allow this to stand or are they going to ask Jesse to put those properties back on the market for what he paid for them, since he has done no improvement, and allow someone with some vision to do the development?”
Gerstl later issued an extensive response to the Telegram that included outlining the work he has done downtown and extending an invitation to see what he and his team have accomplished.
During the July 13 council regular meeting, one of the speakers included activist Susan Perry Cole.
When Cole reached her three-minute limit, Roberson thanked her, but she continued speaking for about another 45 seconds.
Roberson again thanked her and also reminded viewers of the three-minute limit.
The next speaker, Samuel Battle, before beginning to give his comments, said, “Rules are rules. Remember that.”