Archive for Friday, October 9, 2015

City council debates additional public comment at meetings

October 9, 2015

A citizen’s suggestion to change a policy in City Council meetings to allow additional public comment saw mixed reactions from the Shawnee City Council.

Last month, Ray Erlichman suggested a change to the policy regarding public statement at City Council meetings. Erlichman requested that a change be made to PS-7 that would read: “During that portion of the city council meeting known as ‘Miscellaneous Council items,’ the public may comment on any item that is brought forth by a member of the governing body.”

The change would allow for public comment outside of the allotted time given in the “Items from the Floor” agenda item where members of the public can address any topics not on that night's agenda.

Miscellaneous Council Items is an agenda item at the end of each City Council meeting that allows for council members to address various topics. Many times, council members take that opportunity to thank various groups or city departments for work on public events and other things. Occasionally, council members have brought up issues that they would like to see discussed at a future City Council meeting or investigated by city staff. There have also been occasions where council members have taken the opportunity to touch on an agenda item that had already been voted on.

Erlichman said that allowing public comment during that agenda item would give people the opportunity to provide additional feedback on city matters.

“I think the interaction is very important during that period of the Council meeting,” Erlichman said. “That’s what I am suggesting so that we can keep open government and transparency, interactive, participatory democracy.”

The council considered Erlichman’s proposal Tuesday and voted 5-3 in favor of advancing the change in the policy statement to a council vote, which will be held at a future council meeting. Jim Neighbor, Jeff Vaught and Mickey Sandifer voted against the proposal.

Proponents for the change like Council Member Dan Pflumm said that the change would do no harm and that people should always feel welcome to share their thoughts on city matters at an open public meeting.

“We’re here for the public, and if the public wants to discuss one of the items that we’re discussing up here, I’m all for public comment,” Pflumm said.

Council Member Eric Jenkins said that engaging in conversation and hearing ideas from the public is a necessary aspect of council members roles.

“I know we sure need it sometimes,” Jenkins said.

Meyer said she could see the value of allowing the change as well.

“I have seen instances where members of the council have sort of said something directed at someone who spoke earlier and then they don’t get an opportunity to respond to that,” Meyer said.

Opponents of the change said that allowing public comment during the council’s miscellaneous items opens up the opportunity for debate on issues that should be debated at other times. Sandifer said he was against the change because he didn’t feel a change was necessary. He argued that the council doesn’t stop people from talking at various points throughout meetings.

Vaught said that allowing public comment outside of the allotted public comment time could create unwanted debates and conflicts. He said there are plenty of other opportunities at various council meetings for public comment on any issue.

“I think we’re encouraging it to turn it into a conversation, which isn’t good because then we turn it into a conversation about something that’s not on the agenda,” Vaught said. “I just don't want to make a comment and have somebody get up and turn it into a debate against me at the end of a meeting."

The city’s current policy statement regarding debating the public states that “members of the Governing Body are discouraged from engaging in debate with a member of the public at Council or Council Committee meetings. The purpose of public comment is for Council Members to receive input or information from the public.”

Neighbor said that the decision to allow public comment at the end of meetings should be left to the mayor or the chairman of the meeting and that changing the policy statement isn’t necessary. He said he worried that allowing comments at the end of meetings would create “tit for tat” debates that are “counterproductive.”

Erlichman said the point of his suggestion was not to create an arena for debate, but to foster more open communication between the public and the governing body.

“I see nothing wrong with a citizen coming up, not to debate or argue, but to offer additional information,” Erlichman said.

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