Saturday, January 3, 2009

Additional Public Comment Segment being requested for City Council Meetings.

Public Comment prior to Votes
may be worth the additional time.

A couple of meetings ago, I proposed that we include public comment prior to any vote affecting legislation and it was voted down by a slim margin. Immediately following that vote another amendment was made which allowed any member the council to defer any item for one meeting and that in turn passed by I believe the opposite slim margin. I couldn't find the meeting minutes from Dec 18th but that is when it happened.

These last minute amendments are scary for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that they have not been publicly vetted and nor does the public have a means to stop us from making a mistake until which time the deed is already done. This is why I am in favor of the additional public comment prior to votes as I have crafted below as well as in favor of the deferral option.

In an e-mail to the City Attorney on December 31st, I asked that we revisit public comment prior to votes and it was mistakenly not added to the agenda I received and posted to my site today. Therefore I have again requested that the following amendment be added to the agenda separately from the amendment already being proposed which would now reverse course and remove the ability of any member of the Council to defer any matter, one meeting.

In order to give you notice of what I intend to propose at the meeting here are the proposed changes in RED.

Section 19. Public Participation. Public participation in meetings of the City Council shall be permitted in accordance with the provisions of this section.

(a) Public Comments. The floor shall be open for public comments at three points during the meeting. The first public comments section will be provided immediately following the approval of the meeting agenda. This public comments period will last a maximum of thirty minutes, and speakers’ comments will be limited to three (3) minutes each.

Prior to the vote on any legislation, the chair of the meeting invites remarks from the public. Each speaker will be entitled to a total of two minutes to speak to any such item. Council will hear from one speaker in support – the Mayor will ask persons in the audience who are also in support to stand to be recognized. The Mayor will then entertain one speaker in opposition and follow the same process as for the speaker in support. The Mayor retains the ability to limit the number of speakers speaking on a subject depending upon the number of speakers and the number of items on the Council agenda that night.

In addition, the final agenda item of the meeting shall be reserved for comments from the public. Speakers’ comments during this period will be limited to three (3) minutes each. All members of the public wishing to address the City Council shall submit their name and the topic of their comments to the city clerk prior to the start of any meeting held by the City Council; provided, however, that if the applicants of rezoning actions or individuals who wish to oppose a rezoning action have contributed more than $250 to the campaign of a Council Member, the individual shall file a campaign disclosure form as required by O.C.G.A. § 36-67A-3 at least five (5) calendar days prior to the first hearing by the City Council. Individuals will be held to established time limits. These limits may be waived by a majority vote of the City Council. [Cross-reference: O.C.G.A. § 36-67A-3]


Bob Lundsten said...

Mr. Mayor and City Council Members;
I have just received an email from John regarding some proposed changes to Council procedures and would like to offer the following comments and suggestions.
Public Comments:
As you all know Dunwoody was founded on the principle of being open and transparent and I think you have all done an admirable job trying to maintain a high standard in that regard. However the first couple of months have clearly shown that we are lacking in the area of public comments.
The City should adopt procedures that allow the public to comment on any new piece of legislation when it comes up on the agenda and should not relegated to the beginning or end of a meeting. It is important that you hear from the public, ALL the reasons they may be for or against a particular code change.
While John’s suggestion of one speaker for a position addressing the council and others standing to show support of that position is a step in the right direction, it still does not provide full public input. For example, the alcohol and parks issue that was discussed at the last council meeting, the reasons that I was against your actions were different than the reasons that Bill Robinson was opposed. You need to hear as many views as you can. The suggestion that the Mayor could increase the number of speakers for or against an issue leaves too much power to control debate to the possible arbitrary actions of a single individual. (Even though we know Ken would NEVER do such a thing)
The solution is simple. Allow a set amount of time for each position, both in favor and against, to address the Council. I would suggest 10 minutes per side. Those in favor speak first, those in opposition, follow. There is no time for rebuttal except during a zoning hearing. If the Mayor would like to extend that time for any hearing item, he may with approval of the rest of the council.
I have heard repeatedly that this procedure could make the meetings too long and that everyone is busy. I find no merit in those arguments. History shows that in DeKalb County where similar procedures are followed, the length of a meeting is not determined by the length of public comments, but by the grandstanding Commissioners who are trying to impress voters or get themselves on TV. Since we have no “grandstanders” this should not be a problem in Dunwoody
Time should not be a deciding factor in the passage of good law and open government. You have a responsibility to fully vet an issue, hear what the public has to say, and get is right, regardless of the time involved.
Introducing Legislation from the Floor:
I want to repeat some procedural issues I mentioned last week at the council meeting.
It is bad policy to introduce, briefly discuss and vote on legislation of any kind from the floor of a public hearing. As elected officials you have an obligation to do what is in the best interest of ALL the citizens of Dunwoody. Your actions must be open and fully transparent. When you propose and adopt code or amendments on the fly, without any staff review or public input, all the work you have put in to insure openness and transparency goes for naught.
To fully understand the consequences of a code or a code change an amendment needs to be carefully crafted so that it addresses a specific need or want. The proposal then needs to be submitted to the proper departments for their EXPERT evaluation and their official recommendations. The written proposal should then be submitted to the City Attorney for review to make sure that the document is legally sound and defensible in court. Under our form of government, the proposal should probably be submitted to the City Manager for his review and opinion as well.

Only when that process has been followed should a piece of City legislation come to the floor of a City Council meeting. It takes a bit of time, but time should never be the driving forces behind passing good law.

The new code or amendment should be advertised and placed on the agenda so the public knows what is going to happen. Copies of the code or amendment should be made available prior to the City Council meeting both in hard copy and on line. Additional copies of the changes should be available for the public at the Council meetings.

Public comments on the proposals should be heard following the procedures I suggested at the beginning of this memo.

I am not a lawyer and I take for granted that my suggestions need to be reviewed and refined by you and the City Attorney. My suggestions however do lay out a procedure that is much more open and transparent than the procedures you currently have in place. I do not for a minute believe that any thing that has been done to date was done with intent to deny access or participation, but you now have the opportunity to make it better.

I once again thank you for all the time and hard work you have done for our city. Let’s all continue to work together to make it a great place to live.

My 2 Cents

Staceka said...

I agree with Bob. DeKalb County goverment has its issues, but one thing they do right is allow citizens ample opportunity to share their views. The 10 minutes per side follows DeKalb County rules now, why not carry them over as we have done with numerous other items? I fail to see why we need to reinvent the wheeel on this one.

Bob Fiscella said...

Bob - well said!