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Council considering changes to citizen participation guidelines

Thursday, December 8, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

Several weeks after City Council began discussing the possibility of changing the way citizen involvement in Council meetings is regulated, members Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman have come up with a draft version of a resolution that would “clarify and augment” Council procedures. The resolution, Morrison told her colleagues at Tuesday’s work session, would strike a balance between guaranteeing the rights of citizens to speak and conducting Council meetings efficiently.

Morrison said she and Spelman had formulated the resolution with the help of City Clerk Shirley Gentry and attorneys from the Law Department.

If adopted, the resolution would initiate several large changes to City Code related to Council meeting procedures. For one, any person would only be allowed to participate in the removal of three items from the consent agenda for a single Council meeting (in accordance with current City Code, it would still require at least two people signing up to speak to pull an item off the consent agenda). In addition, if an item is pulled from the agenda, any person could speak on that item, regardless of whether that person had already spoken on three items they had requested pulled from the agenda.

That means there would be no official limit on the number of times any person could speak at any Council meeting. That idea didn’t sit well with Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who has ejected several speakers from Council Chambers in the past few months for what he considered violations of decorum, and even banned two for one year. 

Leffingwell said he was concerned that having no limits on the number of times one can speak would invite certain parties to sign up to speak on as many items as they could, possibly extending Council meetings for hours.

“I like most of this,” Leffingwell said. “I just don’t like the part where you can go back after an item has been pulled off of consent, strictly because speakers can pile onto that one. I think that creates a loophole some people might be able to drive a truck through.”

But Morrison said it is important to come up with an approach that is balanced and that doesn’t speak only to recent problems in chambers.

“I’d like to give this a try because for a long time we didn’t really have issues with that,” said Morrison. “And to try and draft a new approach so that we’re not just putting in strict rules purely because we had a specific situation come up. My hope is that we can get beyond that one specific situation. Clearly we need to be cognizant of people’s rights and doing it right.

“There’s a balance that I hope that we can find.”

The proposed resolution would require all people participating in pulling an item from the consent agenda to sign up 15 minutes prior to the scheduled start time of the Council meeting. So, two people would have to have signed up to speak on an item by no later than 9:45am in order for that item to be pulled.

In addition, if only one person has registered to testify on a consent agenda item, that person would be allowed to speak one time for up to three minutes on the consent agenda as a whole, regardless of the number of other items that person is signed up to speak on.

Several Council members expressed concern over several parts of the proposed changes, in particular that 15 minutes would not be enough time for Gentry to, as Leffingwell said, “work her way through that procedure and consider all the permutations.” In response, both Morrison and Council Member Mike Martinez proposed a trial period for the new approach.

“Can we adopt it as a 60-day pilot?” Martinez asked Assistant City Attorney Deborah Thomas. “Because if we adopt it and codify it and then we find out that 15 minutes isn’t enough or three isn’t the magic number, then we have to come back and amend it.”

Thomas said a pilot program would be legal, that Council would just have to vote for an ordinance that would include the timeframe for the pilot and then instruct staff to codify the changes after the pilot period is over.

“It would be simple enough to do an ordinance, but it wouldn’t change the code at this point,” said Thomas.

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