City council changes public comment period

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City council changes public comment period
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By Chris Teale (File photo)

The beginning of city council’s public hearing on Saturday will have a slightly different format, after councilors voted to change the public comment period earlier this month.

Under the plan, which follows long-standing resolutions adopted by council on several occasions, the first 15 to sign up for the opening public comment period will speak at the top of the meeting. Any remaining speakers who sign up for pub- lic comment will be required to wait until the end to speak.

Until now, all speakers wishing to address council during the public comment period did so at the start of the meet- ing, before councilors proceeded to the rest of the docket.

Councilors approved the measure, instigated by Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, by a 6-1 vote at its January 10 legislative meeting. Mayor Allison Silberberg cast the lone dissenting vote.

Discussion on changing the public comment period got testy at times, after it was introduced during councilors’ oral reports. Wilson said he introduced the proposal to try and re-balance meetings in favor of docketed items. After analyzing the time devoted to the public comment period, Wilson said the average time has doubled from 32 minutes in 2015 to 64 minutes last year.

“I think the challenge is, it’s a push-pull with the folks who are here to testify on the docketed items,” he said. “In a lot of cases, we’re losing folks because of the length of public comment who can’t stay for the item that they’re here for.”

City Councilor Paul Smedberg agreed, and said that the public comment period has gotten “out of control” and become “less organic.” City Councilor John Chap- man said all seven members of council are guilty of engaging with speakers during the open mic portion, rather than listening, taking notes and moving on.

But Silberberg took exception to Wilson’s proposal. She accused him of undermining democracy and “putting obstacles in the way” of members of the public coming to speak. Silberberg also said that the plan would not work well, as speakers forced to wait until the end would have to put their day on hold before returning to testify before City Hall.

“Your argument sounds good, but it’s like saying we’re going to save the trees by cutting down some of them,” she said.

Later, the conversation turned frosty.

“When you put in these limits, in essence they are anti- democratic,” Silberberg said. “This is public comment.”

“It is protecting the right of speakers to contribute on the items that are on the agenda before us today, that we have taken the time to put up flyers on polls next to their homes to tell them that we are going to be having a public hearing about an agenda item that affects their community,” Wilson shot back. “That is not anti-democratic, that is the definition of democracy.”

After suggestions from city councilors Tim Lovain and Del Pepper, the new system will be tested and could be subject to further changes in the future. This change did not appear on council’s docket as a point of discussion.

The need to balance hearing from the public with ensuring meetings run smoothly weighs heavily on elected officials and members of the city’s boards and commissions, a number of which also juggle public comment periods and testimony on docketed items.

Alexandria City School Board chairwoman Ramee Gentry said her board has its public comment period at the beginning in one block. Gentry said that to ensure the meeting continues to progress, it is standard practice for members to not ask questions or otherwise engage with members of the public during the comment period.

Further, she said, a display board keeps track of who is slated to speak and for how long, meaning attendees have an idea of how long the public comment period will take. She said it can be challenging to ensure that people feel heard and at the same time run an efficient meeting.

“I think every governing body has to figure out that balancing act,” she said. “This is the method that has been working for the school board. There obviously are lots of different ways that a governing body can do it, and this is one we feel has been working well, and for those that come out to speak, it’s a system that has been well-established. I think people have a pretty clear expectation of that.”

The parks and recreation commission, meanwhile, models its approach after city council’s public comment period as written in its resolution. Commission chairwoman Jennifer Atkins said there must be limits on discussion between members and the community to those things on the agenda.

“I think when you’re talking about non-docketed items, any real discussion on those isn’t fair to the rest of the public, because those haven’t been advertised to the public as being discussed,” she said. “That comment period to me really is members of the public getting to bring things to our attention that we might not already know about.”

Atkins said she also enforces a three-minute time limit, since that lays out clear expectations for commissioners and the public.

“I do think efficient meetings are really important, and I think you get more engagement,” she said. “When people know you’re not going to waste their time, they’re more likely to come and participate. We as citizens, if we come to speak during the non-docketed item public comment period, we can be sure to try and keep our comments to three minutes. And we can try to not have colloquies after. We can maybe, as citizens, help a little.”

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