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Council clarifies public comment procedures

Friday, April 15, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council put the final touches on the latest iteration of its committee system on Thursday, voting to define where public testimony will be held and how long that testimony should be.

Since the new Council has taken office, the rules addressing whether public comment should take place at Council committees or in front of the full Council have been fairly murky. Council watchers have observed that each time a big issue has come up, there has been a lengthy discussion about where concerned citizens should say their piece, and how long they should take to say it.

That state of affairs may have changed Thursday when Council voted to allow public testimony before the full Council on items that have been heard before committee and, in general, to limit most public testimony to 90 minutes at both the committee and Council level. Council voted in favor of the changes unanimously, with Council Member Sheri Gallo absent.

The vote was a clear shift from an earlier, unsuccessful push to relegate most public testimony to the committee level. It’s also a new attempt to limit public testimony before the full Council, although Mayor Steve Adler indicated that he would still like some flexibility to decide speaking rules on a case-by-case basis, and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo pointed out that the adopted rules could always be waived. But hope remains that the changes might add some clarity to the process.

That clarity took some doing. Initially, Tovo’s move to stipulate speaking times in cases where there were more than 90 minutes of testimony on any side was delayed after Assistant City Attorney John Steiner indicated – just prior to a vote – that the language of the ordinance could use some work.

“I really have no idea what you are passing,” said Steiner.

After some time spent refining the language, Tovo’s amendment was included. That amendment allows three minutes of speaking time for each of the first 20 speakers on an agenda item and offers one minute to each subsequent speaker after that first batch.

Tovo explained that her amendment was not intended to limit the time allotted to speakers and that she would likely always vote against doing so. Rather, she said, her amendment was a means of organizing how much time each speaker would get in the instance that there were more than 90 minutes’ worth of testimony on any side of an issue, and to give the public fair warning of the rules.

“I think in a circumstance where we have a large number of people who have come down to speak, I think it’s important to signal to them that they may have their time limited,” said Tovo. “Because people do practice their speech and probably want to have a plan B if they know an item is going to be very popular.”

Photo by Bill Koplitz. (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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