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City Commission now requires registration before speaking at its meetings

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / DECEMBER 9, 2019

During its December 5 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission considered new meeting rules that mostly concerned how public comment is handled. The rules are summarized here

Assistant City Attorney Lisa Bennett began the discussion by asking for a clarification: “In the motion, on 14 and 15, which is in your agenda, there was a requirement that early speaker registration is not required for items that were scheduled at the last minute or generated by commissioner comment. And speaking at early public comment does not waive the opportunity to speak on items that were scheduled at the last minute or generated by commissioner comment.

“So, as I understood that motion, that was any time you made a motion on the floor during commissioner comment, citizens would be allowed to speak. I am not certain that that was your intent, and I want to get a clarification. I think I heard during the commission comment that it was only for items that were final action. And if that’s correct, final action meaning that it will not come back to the commission for another vote, if that’s what you mean, then I need to add just a couple of sentences on the resolution.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said that he meant for there to be no public comment if the commission just directed staff to bring back information, for example—only for final actions.

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Hayes-Santos moved to accept the new rules with three changes: 

  1. Change “Individuals wishing to speak on an action item during commission comment are not required to register” to “Individuals wishing to speak on a final action item during commission comment are not required to register.” This sentence would also be added: “Final action means that the item will not come back to the commission for another vote.”
  2. Change “his or her” to “their” to make the rules gender-neutral.
  3. Limit Early Public Comment to the afternoon session (the rules had Early Public Comment periods at both the afternoon and evening sessions).

Commissioner Harvey Ward, in response to some statements during General Public Comment, said that the early registration requirement will not apply to agenda items that are generated at the last minute or during commission comment. 

Mayor Lauren Poe said that commissioners and staff were still discussing the deadlines for registering to speak. [Editor’s note: According to the text of the resolution, the rules will go into effect immediately. The commission didn’t say when they would decide on the early registration deadline for the next meeting.]

Hayes-Santos’s motion did not receive a second. Commissioner Gigi Simmons moved to accept the new rules with only the gender-neutral change. That motion was seconded, although Hayes-Santos continued to argue for the “final action” change. 

Changes are “draconian and confusing”

During public comment on the motion, Debbie Martinez said that the changes are “so draconian and confusing” that they do nothing to promote efficiency. She said that there are no convoluted rules at County Commission meetings, at which there are four opportunities for public comment, with no limitations on how often individuals can speak. She said that new voices continue to come before the commission, but the commission wants to silence citizens at meetings. She pointed out that there are no rules governing the order in which speakers will be called, leaving that process open to discrimination. 

“Dialogue… would create a feeling that we’re part of the process”

Robert Mounts said that  public comment should come before a motion is on the floor and “before you telegraph your vote.” He also said he wished the commission would consider “a way where you could have more of a conversation, where you could ask a question and get it answered quickly. Where you could have a little back and forth. A little collaboration and discussion. And yes, dialogue with individual members of the commission, and not just with the Chair. That also would create a feeling that we’re part of the process, you know, the public is part of the decision-making process. We’re not just having one-way communication from the dais. Or from the podium.”

“More heads were down than were up”

Adele Franson said that commissioners don’t seem engaged during public comment. “You, Mayor Poe, seem to be very attentive. You are eye-to-eye. Others are doodling or maybe get up and take a bathroom break, and it seems as though it’s biased. More heads were down than were up when the citizens were speaking.”

“Jaw-dropping disregard for your constituents”

Ernesto Martinez said he was saddened by the “us vs. them” atmosphere at City Commission meetings. “You are exhibiting jaw-dropping disregard for your constituents and the first amendment of the Constitution of our country. The City Attorney has cautioned you against restricting speech… You don’t need to fix something that is not broken.” 

“They asked us to show up, now they ask us to shut up”

Tana Silva said, “In the past four years, through systemic changes, the public has been increasingly cut out of decision-making, as an expanding, more expensive, top-heavy, top-down city government aligns with powerful interests. Now rules would muzzle public input to commission decisions. A year ago, we heard all about transparency, trust, and community engagement. Well, an active community member said recently of these rules, ‘They asked us to show up, now they ask us to shut up.’ 

“The ordinance raises serious concerns about where city government is going. The language in ‘Public Comment Encouraged’ is hardly encouraging. The commission… conducts its orderly and efficient business meetings in a timely manner, but by law must endure public opinions and criticism. That’s all it is? Just opinions and criticism? No. Public input guides better decisions. What about genuinely taking people’s perspectives into consideration before deliberating? 

“Authoritarian government may be efficient in the short term. Making speakers register in advance is not efficient. It’s useless busywork for staff and disadvantages most of the public. 

“‘Procedures for public comment: the clerk will call each registered speaker to the podium to address the Commission. After being recognized, the speaker shall’ blah, blah, blah, ‘and obey the … presiding officer.’ Obey? ‘Interruption of Meeting.’ ‘Enforcement of order.’ ‘Disruptive behavior.’ The mayor has subjective leeway, and we’ve seen how selective that can be, even interrupting speakers to police how they express their thoughts. Even worse, giving the mayor the power to decide at meetings how many people may speak for how long on agenda items is an abominable idea that has no place here. 

“And for all these restrictions on the public, the rules impose only one on commissioner conduct: To not campaign or advertise in meetings. That’s Ethics 101. 

“Commissioners need to hear public comment before deliberating on actions, have all backup materials and all agenda items posted well in advance of meetings, add no items to the agenda after it is posted, and take no action without public notice, such as during commission comment time, address the issues at hand, and not disparage or lecture members of the public. People who addressed the commission for the  first time here recently were talked down to, and that really turned them off. Instead of setting the city up for more legal challenges, please drop these rules. No registration, no changing time limits, no actions without notice. Thank you.”

“I’d like to say that I feel that I feel that my voice is valued and important here, but it doesn’t always feel that way.”

Lizzy Lanier said, “I want to start off by telling y’all a personal story of why I started coming to City Commission meetings. In 2016, I felt extremely disheartened by the election results. I felt powerless. I felt angry. I felt depressed. I felt largely powerless and hopeless about the decisions that were being made in Washington, that—I felt like here, doing what I needed to do to live my life in Gainesville, Florida, sometimes, many times, I could have little to no effect on those things, the rhetoric that was being used, the policy that was being enacted. So I saw somebody create a Facebook page about coming to a City Commission meeting. And I thought, wow, that’s a way that I can take my power back. As a citizen of the United States. Of Florida. Of Gainesville. 

“I could come to City Commission meetings, and I could use the privilege and power of my own voice to come here to try and engage in a discussion about the things that I feel are really important to me. I’ve also tried to engage some of my friends in coming to City Commission meetings. And I feel that I’ve failed to keep a lot of them coming. I… at this point, I’d like to say that I feel that I feel that my voice is valued and important here, but it doesn’t always feel that way. It doesn’t often feel that way for other people that come up here. 

“But that’s not why I came up here. I’m very confused why this particular resolution is coming to this vote in this way. Because, as Mr. Mounts has stated, it seems—it just seems more about control and limits than anything else. And I can speak personally, you know, back to that night in 2016, if these rules were enacted, you know, if I had to register before I spoke—it takes a lot of courage to come up here… I’m just saying, y’all, you know, it’s not easy. We come up here, we put ourselves out in this vulnerable position. A lot of times I don’t even know if I’m going to speak until I’m doing it, you know. 

“I feel very confused by these resolutions. If I had known in 2016 that that’s what was going to come out, I don’t know how encouraged I would feel to come back. Or to even speak in the first place if I had had to write it down and register. So I just want to express that, and implore—I really don’t love this. And I’d really like to encourage y’all to reconsider these rules.”

“This is citizen engagement. We’re doing it.”

Bob Chewning said that a lot of staff time, commission time, and citizen time was being spent to change the rules on citizen engagement. “This is citizen engagement. We’re doing it.” 

“Come and talk to us. Come to our neighborhoods.”

Tyra Edwards said,  “I think there’s an uncomfortableness that you feel when you’re.. you know, from us, when we come to you. ‘They’re always complaining’…I feel that that’s what it is. But wouldn’t it be so much better if you would come into your districts and talk to the people? Come where you are invited. Come and talk to us. Come to our neighborhoods. Come to our housing communities. Talk to us, let us know what’s going on. Let us talk to you. Let you know how we’re feeling about certain things. So that way, you know, maybe when we come to the meetings, you know, you kind of got an idea of where we’re coming from, we have an idea of where you are coming from, and we can meet in the middle some kind of way.”

“We bring solutions all the time, we’re just completely ignored.”

Wilbur Holloway said, “One of the reasons these meetings run so long is that you’re doing things way beyond your purview. I mean, the reality is… we organize ourselves into cities for security, i.e., law enforcement and fire… you’re also supposed to do infrastructure. And you’re doing everything else. And you’re doing all these different things and that’s why these meetings run so long. And again, you talk about the citizens making these meetings too long, or attacking you, or whatever. Well, and I hear all the time, ‘if you don’t bring solutions.’ We bring solutions all the time, we’re just completely ignored. I don’t see any other possibility except for changing this out. You guys are just way, way out of control.”

“It didn’t used to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Gary Gordon said, “When I was a kid, I came with my dad to a Gainesville City Commission meeting, first meeting I’d ever come to. Probably predates everybody here. The great, esteemed environmentalist activist, Marjorie Carr rose to speak, and the mayor said, ‘Sit down and shut up.’ And that was my introduction to Gainesville city politics at the time. 

“This reminds me of that. Not just this proposal but the behavior that’s been going on for the last several months, with the removal of people by armed guards. A year ago, almost to the day, the Gainesville Rise meeting occurred. You had 60 or 70 people speak. It was wonderfully orderly. None of these rules were in effect. One person followed another up and spoke about what they thought you should do. And you didn’t need these rules. This is not about democracy. It’s about control. 

“A recent study showed that… the United States has slipped lower than the top 20 in democratic nations around the world, and most people might attribute that to Trump, but it also goes on at the local level, and it’s going on here. Now, I’ve got 22 years experience in municipal government, between here and the work I did in Santa Monica, so… I’m speaking from experience and observation. You could have the dialogue that somebody suggested you want. We used to. We used to have people come up and they would say something, they might ask a question; a commissioner would respond to the question. Or they might throw it to the manager to call on the appropriate staff member, and dialogue occurred. People got answers to their concerns, and they were a part of the decision making process, so you don’t have to wish for that. You can actually do it. 

“You can put it in the rules instead of the rules you’re talking about. These rules are an overreaction, based on the acts of a couple of people, a couple of times, and you’re just severely overreacting, and then there’s supposedly this imaginary group of people that won’t come to meetings because of what goes on. Well, I suggest to you that when 70 people show up, like they did at Gainesville Rise, or the number of people that showed up when you were going to increase the taxes and so on—people come, they’re not put off from coming. These rules will make it more difficult; they will have to jump more hurdles unnecessarily. It didn’t used to be this way. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

After the members of the public had finished, Mayor Poe responded to some of the concerns: “The vast majority of the changes are adding opportunities for the public to engage. [At this point, there was laughter from the public in the background.] We are adding early public comment opportunities, meaning that you don’t have to stay for an item to be read into the record and brought up. You can come at the beginning of the meeting or at the beginning of the evening session and talk about an item to the commission and then go home; that helps working folk and families. In fact, we’re giving you five minutes if you want to speak on multiple items and then go home. 

“We are incorporating three additional ways to add public comment to the items. You can do it online, and it will be able to be read by anybody in the public with that agenda item. You can send an e-mail, and we’ll include that in the public record on the item, and you can send a good old-fashioned snail mail letter, and we’ll include that, as long as we get it in time for it to be published; if not, we’ll add it to the record after the fact. Those are things that do not exist right now.

“We are also, to Ms. Edwards’ point, trying to do more meetings out in the community. We did our first meeting in District 1, a City Commission meeting in District 1, we’ll be doing our meeting in District 2 in January, I believe, and we are continuously looking for new ways to not have— ‘cause we understand that this is for some people an environment that is intimidating for them, and they would rather be somewhere where they’re more comfortable, and so as a whole, we have added more ways to engage with and let your voices be known on any number of items, both on our agenda and not on our agenda, and nothing has changed in relation to each business item on the agenda. Everybody is still welcome to speak in the same manner that they have in the past. [Editor’s note: It is incorrect to say that “nothing has changed in relation to each business item on the agenda.”The new rules will require speakers to register before some currently-unspecified time if they wish to speak; that is not currently the case.] 

“And so the goal of the commission I believe was to add opportunities and to create a vector for more people to be able to engage in their public process if they have issues coming down to this chamber on the night, if they have mobility issues or work issues or family issues, which I know is a barrier to many people. I want to say, too, I agree with the concept of receiving public input before we do a motion; that is something I’m supportive of and do not believe that requires a rule change, I think that is at the discretion of the Chair, and so that’s something that I’ll talk to my colleagues about and happy to implement that if that’s something that the commission feels would facilitate the process because I do agree that would be an improvement in how we conduct our business.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson and Commissioner Ward also expressed support for hearing public comment before making a motion. Poe said it didn’t need to be part of the motion on changing the rules since it’s not a rule. 

The motion to pass the rules with the gender-neutral change passed 6-1, with Commissioner David Arreola in dissent. Arreola did not speak during the discussion about why he disagreed with the new rules.

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