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Changes coming to city commission public comment and meeting rules

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / NOVEMBER 1, 2019

At the November 7 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission will consider multiple changes to its public comment policies and meeting rules.

The commission has been trying for several months to tighten up its policies, in an effort to improve civility and decorum at commission meetings. The discussion and motions that led to the current resolution took place at the August 8 General Policy Committee meeting; the video is available here, and the discussions starting around 3:17:48 in the video (about 14 minutes long) are worth watching if you want to know where each commissioner stands on these issues.

“Early Citizen Comment” will be a new feature in the meetings. This allows citizens the opportunity to speak at the beginning of the meeting on any agenda item; each speaker is given 3 minutes (or 5 minutes if they want to address more than one agenda item). Any citizen who speaks during Early Citizen Comment waives the right to speak later in the meeting. This change makes it easier for citizens to plan their time because they can speak early in the meeting instead of waiting for a specific agenda item to come up.

The new procedures specifically allow “applause, cheering, and outbursts of approval” only during the Proclamations/Special Recognitions period, “as it is recognized that proclamations and special recognitions are often celebratory in nature.” Applause and outbursts (of any kind) are still prohibited during all other periods of the meeting.

General Citizen Comment is now limited to once per day. Previously, citizens could speak at both 1:00 and 5:30, but could not speak at the end of the meeting if they had spoken at either of the earlier comment periods. The new language prohibits citizens from speaking during either of the 5:30 or end-of-meeting comment periods if they spoke at any of the earlier general citizen comment periods.

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A new section of the rules is titled “Citizen Comment Encouraged” and says, “The Commission will not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs or services of the commission, or the acts or omissions of the Commission. Citizens’ expressions that go beyond the role and authority of the Commission have no privilege or protection.”

A change to the rule on commenting on agenda items says, “Citizen comment will not be permitted on purely informational or procedural agenda items.” This was fairly controversial at the August 8 meeting, with Commissioner Arreola arguing that since these items are subject to a vote and can be voted down, not all of them are uncontroversial. Three commissioners voted against the resolution to adopt this rule; although they didn’t comment on why they voted as they did, there seemed to be some agreement that the definition of “purely informational or procedural” may not be as straightforward as Commissioner Hayes-Santos (who proposed this at the GPC meeting) said it was.

Comment cards will be another new feature of meetings. According to the new rules, citizens “wishing to speak on agenda items” will be required to register prior to speaking. (It doesn’t say that the cards will be required for Early Comment or General Comment.)

Written input (letters, emails, etc.) will now be “incorporated in the public record.” It’s not clear exactly how or when these comments will be incorporated; for example, there could be a single file attached to the agenda that includes all of the written comment, or there could be a long list of individual files. In either case, there would have to be a deadline for submitting items, and there should be some way for citizens to track when the backup is updated with new written comments. 

Citizens are still limited to 3 minutes at each opportunity for public comment, except for the 5 minutes allotted during the Early Comment period for those addressing multiple agenda items. The rules say that the presiding officer can establish other time limits, based on the number of participants. The rules also give the presiding officer the authority to “adopt a time limitation to provide equal time for opponents and proponents speaking to any particular issue.” Again, it’s not clear how that would be managed. Would some citizens not be allowed to speak if there aren’t as many speakers on the other side of the issue? Would citizens on one side be given 1.5 minutes to speak while citizens on the other side get 3 minutes because there are more on one side than the other?

There seems to be a disconnect between the sections of the rules dealing with registering to comment: While the rule for registering specifically says that registration is only required for speaking on agenda items, the “Procedures for Citizen Comment” section says “The Clerk will call each registered speaker to the podium,” which would imply that registration is required for all types of citizen comment. 

Another new rule may not be a formal change, but it is a change to the way things are currently done. Mayor Poe typically asks that comments and questions be directed to him, but the new rules state that speakers should address the commission “as a body and not to any member thereof, nor to any member of staff.” Commenters are also directed to “obey the directions of the presiding officer” (the Mayor or his/her designee).

A new section of the rules titled “Interruption of Meeting” establishes procedures for dealing with disruptive behavior at meetings. New options are provided to the presiding officer, including calling a recess, requesting the person’s removal, adjourning the meeting, or “tak[ing] such other appropriate action as permitted by law.” Over the past few months, the Mayor has been calling a recess when a speaker refuses to give up the podium after 3 minutes, but this was never specifically in the rules; now it is specifically there. When a recess is called, the video camera shuts off, so there is no video record of what happens during a recess.

Disruptive behavior is defined in the rules, but determination of whether behavior is actually disruptive is made solely by the presiding officer. If a commission member wants the presiding officer to enforce the rules of order, the commission member has to make a motion, and the motion has to be passed by a majority vote of the commission. 

Interestingly, the resolution deletes the rule stating that Robert’s Rules of Order, “so far as they are applicable and do not conflict with these Rules or the Ordinances or Charter of the City, shall guide the Commission as needed.”  

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