By: Catherine S. Blake, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Free speech comes at a price in this tiny southern Utah town. Twenty-five dollars to be exact.
Mayor Jay Lee wants to keep Town Council meetings short and civil, so he charges residents $25 every time they speak up at zoning and planning meetings.
When the agenda is loaded, Lee won’t hesitate to cancel public comment sessions altogether.
“I want the meetings to be positive, not a gripe session,” Lee said. “They were taking up a lot of time and it wasn’t something positive. We were hearing the same thing over and over again.”
Residents who resent the fee formed a group in May called Friends of Virgin to make town government more accessible.
The problems began when citizens tried to speak out against a home for problem youths that was being relocated to Virgin, a hamlet of 350 people, said the group’s president, Lee Ballard.
Opponents said it wasn’t the kind of development that would benefit Virgin, but the mayor said he couldn’t do anything to block it.
When a citizen paid the $25 fee to read a petition against the home — signed by 97 residents — Lee refused to let it into the public record. Then on Oct. 24, dozens of people packed the council chamber for another meeting, only to be denied the opportunity to speak at all. Lee said he canceled the public comment period to save time.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous the way this town is run,” said Sandra Grow, a member of Friends of Virgin. “You can’t talk at meetings at all anymore.”
Two years ago, Virgin gained notoriety when it passed a law requiring every home to have a gun for self-defense. The ordinance was later declared a violation of state law.