Archive for Thursday, October 21, 2010

City committee mulls restricting public comment, cutting back meeting minutes

October 21, 2010

Shawnee is on a path toward tightening rules for members of the public who speak during meetings and also eliminating full transcriptions of meeting minutes.

Changes to the public comment policy would likely be minimal but meeting minutes would change significantly, should committee suggestions on the matter come to fruition.

The city’s public works and safety committee discussed both issues Tuesday night.

They asked staff to prepare sample policy updates based on their conversation and return them to the committee for review. Neither of the policies would change until formal approval by the full council.

On the matter of public comment, committee members said the policy shouldn’t be so strict that it would discourage anyone from speaking.

However, they also agreed that:

• Asking speakers to sign in with their full names and addresses would be helpful for keeping accurate records and for maintaining speaking order when needed.

• The new policy should state that city staff is not required to engage in discussion with speakers or answer questions on the spot.

• Speakers who want to display images or documents on the overhead projector must first present them to city staff for approval. The goal isn’t to limit free speech, committee chairwoman Dawn Kuhn said, but rather to prevent explicit images from unexpectedly popping up in front of the general public, which often includes Boy Scouts and high school students.

Some committee members advocated imposing a 5-minute time limit on speakers, but the committee ultimately decided to leave that point alone, saying overly windy speakers are rarely a problem anyway.

Regarding minutes from council and committee meetings, doing away with word-for-word minutes could save the city up to $17,000 a year in transcription fees, according to a staff report.

All but one committee member voted to recommend changing to a summary format instead, similar to that used by the city of Lenexa.

Summaries would include actions taken plus a few factual sentences stating what conversation took place – but no pros and con’s from individual council members. Most council members said that while detailed minutes can be useful, they aren’t worth their cost when the city is facing tight-budget times.

Committee member Michelle Distler was the lone dissenting vote.

Distler said she relied on past written minutes to refresh her memory of discussions or to learn why previous council members made certain decisions. She said the city shouldn’t take those details away from leaders or interested residents.

“To me, it just completely takes away the transparency of what’s going on there,” she said, adding that transcriptions are worth the cost the city pays for them. “We all have different priorities, and this is just one of my high ones.”

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