QUESTION: During last week’s city council meeting one of the speakers, Faith Cook, gave a Graham address, but she doesn’t live in Graham anymore, does she? How can she address the council?
ANSWER: On the sign-up sheet to speak at the meeting, Cook wrote down her address as 330 West Market Street in Graham. Asked at the end of her comments to confirm the address, Cook shouted the same as she left the council chambers after mayor Jennifer Talley had called “time is up” on her prolonged time at the podium.
Cook was one of two speakers, and about six demonstrators outside the meeting, protesting the city’s hiring and continued employment of Douglas Strader, a former Greensboro policeman who was fired by that jurisdiction in 2020.
Public comment speakers in Graham are allocated four minutes each, but Cook tried to engage the mayor and city manager Megan Garner, stretching her time and Talley’s patience.
A search of North Carolina voter rolls indicates that there is no “Faith Cook” registered to vote in Alamance County. A “Faith Cook” registered since August 1 in Whitsett in Guilford County is listed, with a former voter registration in Alamance County.
However, the location of her residence would not necessarily affect whether she would have been allowed to speak to Graham’s city council, or could speak in the future.
North Carolina’s General Assembly passed legislation in 2005 requiring public bodies – town and city councils (and boards of aldermen), school boards, and boards of commissioners – to set aside “at least one period for public comment per month at a regular meeting of the council.”
Neither the statute nor Graham’s practice (nor that of most other local jurisdictions) puts any requirement about residency as a condition of speaking during a board’s public comment period.
In a previous explanation of the statute, Frayda Bluestein of the North Carolina School of Government, an expert on local government, doubts the legality of any such limitation.
“There is no explicit authority for such a limitation in [the North Carolina statute], and I have doubts about its legality, even though one case has held that such a restriction does not violate the [C]onstitution,” she wrote citing a Florida case where a residency requirement was upheld. “In the absence of any specific statutory authority for limiting the categories of people who may speak, I think a rule restricting comments to residents or taxpayers would be on feeble legal ground,” Bluestein concluded.
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