Opinion
 

New public comment rules inspire confusion as well as criticism

“Read the directions and directly you will be directed in the right direction.”             — Alice in Wonderland

By Karen Gadbois, The Lens staff writer |

See related video at end of story.

Broadcasts of City Council proceedings cut cleanly from the dais to the speakers microphone — omitting the confusion that generally prevails among would-be orators over who gets to give public comment and for how long.

And the news is this: The public comment rules have just gotten even more confusing.

In olden days (which ended in mid-June), talkative members of the public filled out a fairly simple white card, hit the punch-in clock and then waited, sometimes quite a while, to be summoned to the mike. Generally they’d be given three minutes to hold forth, though many ran on a bit longer, over increasingly vociferous ahems from the Council’s presiding officer.

Yes, democracy is an untidy process, which is another way of saying that some speakers have a very hard time shutting up. But, as Winston Churchill used to say about democracy, consider the alternative.

Further aggravating the problem: not only were some speakers long-winded, but some overflowed so copiously with opinions that they were signing up to provide three-minute orations on most every item on the council’s agenda, there being on some agendas literally dozens of items.

And so the council resolved to ring in a new era. The first change was to declare that commentary comes in two flavors, land-use issues and everything else, a.k.a. “general matters.” Land-use comments would be handled as they always had been: sign up in advance on the traditional white punch card, three minutes per speaker.

General matters is where things get complicated, even baffling.

For one thing it’s not always clear in every speaker’s mind exactly where the line lies dividing the two realms of commentary.

Is a proposed overlay district a general matter or a land use issue? Is an ordinance allowing the mayor to sign a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Office of Community Development a land-use issue or general matter?

In a further departure from past practice, the new rules also restrict public comment exclusively to topics that are scheduled that day for a vote, not just testimony from experts or interested parties summoned by the council.

To spell out the new day now dawning, the council has prepared a bright yellow card (see above) that doubles as a sign-up sheet and a mini-version of Roberts Rules of Order, with the new regs governing general comment printed on the flip side.

The six rules governing general-issue commentary start out succinctly enough: As per rules No. 1 through 3, anyone can speak on any agenda item for up to three minutes per item and a total of six minutes per speaker per meeting, if he or she chooses to address more than one item.

Got it?

It gets more confusing from there, particularly when multiple members of the public want to opine on a single topic. Without necessarily knowing each other or even that they share a common concern, these speaker clusters must somehow find each other and decide in advance how to allocate among themselves the six minutes in total that can be addressed to their issue. (No one speaker can hold the floor for less than one minute, a provision apparently designed to avoid a procession of speakers each committed to speaking for, say, two seconds.)

Still with me?

Then come some qualifiers: one of which allows the presiding officer to silence those who may already have spoken at the meeting in favor of those who haven’t but want to. Another allows speakers on several topics to combine their views into a single appearance at the microphone.

According to Councilwoman-at-Large Jackie Clarkson, the changes were implemented to allow “more people in attendance to have the opportunity to address important items before a vote is taken,” a worthy goal, perhaps – except that the new rules are not accompanied by a simultaneous increase in the time allotted to the public to hold forth.

According to local community activist Sandra “18 Wheeler” Hester, the rule change is nothing less than duct tape over her ever-active mouth, a ploy to stifle the “voices of dissent”.

Hester carps that the new rules can be manipulated at the will of the council, allowing those in favor more time to speak, while chronic commenter’s – i.e. Hester — are shunned and silenced.

The loquacious Hester slid comment on the rule change into a recent “general matters” harangue (see link to video clip at end of this article) on St. Augustine High School paddling dispute.

“Why did the amount of time change all of a sudden,” Hester demanded to know in a slight digression from paddling. Councilman Arnie Fielkow answered her interrogatory by drily reminding Hester that she had three minutes to complete her commentary on the St. Aug flap. To which she replied, “Nice trick.”

Hester had time to lob only a few parting shots before stalking out of the council chamber. Whether that was proof the rules work beautifully or badly will depend on your enthusiasm for Hester’s rants.

With the new rules in place, the sign-in table, never the tidiest part of the council chamber, has become cluttered with information brochures, directions, rules and legal requirements.

Confused by it all, would-be public commenters approach the nearby press table for guidance, operating under the assumption that the scriveners and shutterbugs seated there are city employees assigned to help the public — a view not generally shared by actual city employees, least of all City Council members.

Link to video clip of Hester’s commentary:

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