FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. –— Forsyth County Commission Chair Laura Semanson sparked some debate Jan 9 when she proposed banning the use of personal electronic devices during meetings.

The proposal came up during the commission’s discussion of self-governance and rules at the first regular meeting of 2020.

“If there’s a conversation with a commissioner, the public’s entitled to know it,” Semanson said. “Aside from optics and transparency, if you’re not giving your attention to a person who’s presenting their case to you, wanting to be heard, if you’re not listening, not engaged, they’re not getting their due process.”

Semanson said the practice to prohibit texting and private communications among commissioners during meetings was informally adopted for a time in 2017. A formal adoption of the rule, she said, has not been reintroduced.

Commissioner Todd Levent explained that for personal reasons he would like to have his phone “if something comes up” and told Semanson she was treating the commissioners “like children.”

Semanson said texts on personal devices can be obtained through open records requests. 

Commissioner Cindy Mills joined the discussion.

“Surely we can separate ourselves long enough from Facebook to conduct a meeting,” Mills interjected. “I think we can govern ourselves better.”

County Attorney Ken Jarrard reminded the board that its adopted rules outline how they self-govern, and the electronics issue was about decorum.

“If it becomes an issue or distracting, it could be called out of order,” he said.

Semanson’s push for greater transparency comes just as the county is set to launch a new online feature that will provide residents access to background documents and supporting materials for agenda items discussed at commission meetings.

Right now, and for at least the past 10 years, county staff has printed out hundreds of pages of background materials for agenda items, then bind them into booklets for each commissioner and top level staff. These items include site plans, applications, ordinances, resolutions and other documentation provided for each agenda item. 

There are normally 10-15 of these packets created for each regular meeting.

Communications Director Karen Shields said county staff are currently training on the new software, and she expects the system to be up and running soon.

Neighboring counties and many nearby cities have had agenda documents available online for years. Gwinnett County began its system about 10 years ago. Online agendas and documents are also available in Dawson, Fulton and Hall counties.

In other business at the Jan. 9 meeting, commissioners voted to formally remove from the agenda a public hearing on an application to allow construction of an asphalt plant in the southern portion of the county.

The conditional use permit application was pulled last month when county planners learned they had overlooked several conditions placed on the property when it was zoned for heavy industrial use in 1992. Those conditions limited hours of operation from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., required that the operation not be visible from a public street and limited use to a ready-mix concrete plant.

The county had filed the application to allow CW Matthews to construct the new plant at its current site on Granite Lane near Peachtree Parkway. 

Hundreds of nearby residents turned out to protest the application at a public hearing Nov. 21.

The issue also garnered attention in nearby Johns Creek which sits just to the south of the site. Residents there spoke of their concerns at a town hall meeting with city officials last fall.

The county’s denial of its own application means that CW Matthews will have to file the application to build the plant on the site.

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