Should candidates for elected office get the chance to plug their campaigns at the meetings of the Volusia County Council?
Besides just getting one’s name out before the audience attending the meeting, those who speak publicly about their quest for votes are also reaching an online audience — via the county government website — and for online replays of council meetings. In other words, free publicity.
That question arose at an April County Council meeting, and the effort to stop self-promoting statements or muzzle up-and-coming politicos ended as quickly as it started.
County Council Member and former Sheriff Ben Johnson objected to wannabe leaders using the public-participation segment of each meeting to call attention to themselves in the election cycle now underway.
“This is not the place for that,” Johnson told his colleagues April 5, as the leaders made their closing comments about a miscellany of issues and concerns. “We should stop them right there. This is not the place for that.”
Johnson said anyone who uses the podium to his/her political advantage should get “a nice, kind reminder” that such verbiage is not allowed.
“Is that legal?” County Chair Jeff Brower asked.
Since his election to the countywide leadership post, Brower has been an advocate of free speech and listening to the matters raised by laypeople who come to the meetings.
County Attorney Mike Dyer weighed in for free speech.
“We have public comment at meetings, and there’s an extensive amount of First Amendment protection,” Dyer advised.
“I understood your point, and I don’t want it,” Brower told Johnson. “I don’t want this to become a campaign stop.”
“It’s a public comment,” Council Member Barb Girtman said. “You’re running for a public office.”
Smiling, she added, “I’m running for re-election.”
Sensing a lack of support for his stance, Johnson conceded defeat.
“Mr. Chair, I’m hearing what’s said — forget it!” he said. “Just forget it!”
Thus, as the political season progresses, self-serving political statements may continue to come forth during the County Council’s business sessions.