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City commission sets framework for new meeting rules

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / NOVEMBER 8, 2019

During their November 7 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission discussed changing some of the rules governing their meetings. Asst. City Attorney Lisa Bennett briefly presented the reason they were having the discussion, reminding them that the discussion began at the August 8 General Policy Committee meeting, stating that the changes are intended to “improve the amount of citizen engagement, with the commissioners and at city commission meetings.” She said that any changes they decided on would come back, in the form of a resolution, to be voted on during an evening meeting.

The recommended changes were in the follow categories:

  • Early Citizen Comment – allows citizens to speak on any agenda item at the beginning of the meeting. They would be allowed 3 minutes for one item and 5 minutes for more than one item. Citizens who speak during the early comment period would be prohibited from speaking during the rest of the meeting.
  • Applause will be allowed during proclamations only. The current rules don’t allow any “cheering or jeering,” but this rule is routinely violated during proclamations.
  • Citizens will be limited to speaking during one general comment period. There are usually three of these at each meeting: at 1:00, 5:30, and the end of the meeting. Citizens can now speak at 1:30 and at 5:30 or the end of the meeting.
  • “Decorum and civility” rules: limit general citizen comment to issues of city business or local relevance, no citizen comment on “purely informational or procedural items,” citizens must register before speaking, written comments “will be incorporated in the public record for the meeting,” and additional authority for the presiding officer to call a recess or remove someone for being disruptive (which includes “use of words that may threaten or outrage others”).
  • Remove Robert’s Rules of Order, which she said are more applicable to parliamentary bodies, “not a 7-member commission.”

The commissioners decided to talk about all of these items together, and Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos began with a list of changes he had prepared:

  1. Change “citizen comment” to “public comment.” Remove the mention of “citizen” from the rules and replace it with “public.” Hayes-Santos said the word “citizen” is exclusionary.
  2. Change “chair pro tem” to “mayor pro tem” because they don’t use the term “chair.”
  3. Add “Business Discussion Items” to the evening session, only if needed.
  4. Add Special meetings to the list of meetings at which the commission can decide to cancel one of their other meetings.
  5. Change the members of the Audit and Finance Committee from the Mayor and one other commissioner to the Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem.
  6. Change the proposed rule on Early Citizen Comment to also prohibit these speakers from speaking on agenda items (the proposed rule only prohibited them from speaking during general citizen comment).
  7. The proposed rule stating “Citizen comment will not be permitted on purely informational or procedural agenda items” would be changed to add “or votes” to the end of the sentence (this was later changed to ask staff to bring back language to clarify it further).
  8. Add “general public comment and early public comment” to the rule requiring speakers to register to speak on agenda items
  9. Add a deadline to the requirement to register to speak; Hayes-Santos recommended one hour before the meeting starts, but he later changed it to 30 minutes, and the commission later decided to leave that up to the clerk’s office. The public may register in person, by mail, online, or by phone.
  10. Add “or public” to the end of the proposed rule stating “[The speaker shall] address all remarks to the Commission as a body and not to any member thereof, nor to any member of staff.”
  11. Add a new rule: “Members of the commission or public may not advocate for or against anyone running for office. Members of the commission or public may not advertise for-profit businesses.” (Hayes-Santos later removed the restrictions on the public.)

Commissioner David Arreola suggested discussing the proposed rules one at a time, but Mayor Lauren Poe said Arreola could comment on each one “and people can follow along.” 

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Arreola said the term “citizen” means anyone living in Gainesville; it’s not exclusionary. He supported allowing extra time to speak on multiple agenda items but thought 5 minutes should be the maximum. Arreola was open to the idea that someone speaking during early public comment could speak on the item later because if they stick around for the agenda item, they obviously care a lot about that item. He thinks items of local relevance (not necessarily related to city business) are fine in public comment. Arreola went on to say that he supports early registration, but not with a deadline an hour before (he suggested 5 minutes before the start of the meeting). He also said the presiding officer should have discretion to add people if they’re not familiar with the new rules. He said he is in favor of adding written comments to the record of the meeting.

Commissioner Warren spoke next, addressing the reasons for the update to the rules: “We’re just asking for better respect. And then we get into conversation as to who started the disrespect first. That’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is there’s too much disrespect in this room. And there are individuals who participate here on a regular basis, and their comments are important to be able to be heard. But there’s a point when you have conversations with members of the public, and you vote on a matter that—you know, again, we’re elected here. By popular vote. And when the minority voice feels they haven’t been heard, they have the right to comment. But just a statement of fact: telling us the same thing 20 times a day, you wouldn’t take it from your co-workers, your friends, your children, your parents, yet we’re expected to cough it up… I would love every one of you to have the opportunity to sit here and have the people who lost to you come up and throw the trash at you that we often get.”

Warren continued: “If you would behave here, the same way you do at the county meetings, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. You’ve got the county meetings with people who have been—they don’t have term limits. So their whole relationship in the community is very different.”

Warren then responded to multiple comments from the public comment period, in which several people referred to the fact that multiple commissioners left the dais while the public was speaking:  “We have people walk out of the room on us just as much as people up here walk out. But you’re going to come up and every time you get up there, you’re going to start throwing comments at one commissioner [editor’s note: She is referring to Gail Johnson, who leaves the dais every time Nathan Skop comes to the podium to speak]. I will support that commissioner leaving the room.”

She then briefly addressed the new rules, saying she did not want to be “too tight” on early registration, but said “none of these are going to matter if the same behavior continues. It’s the same people who make their comments. You know who you are. And you challenge us by acting like the kids in the back of the room who challenge the substitute teacher because she’s the new one for the day. The point is it takes up so much time to hear the same thing that you know where we are. We know where you are. I want to hear your comments that are going to make an impact. I don’t want you digging into my cavities.”

She continued, “Because this is democracy. These are the people who won the majority of the vote in every election that puts them here. And you didn’t. If you ran and you lost and you continue to come and ask for the same things that you didn’t get supported with, that’s democracy. Find a way to bring it forward that you’ll get a majority to support you. That’s democracy… But again it doesn’t matter what we say if people don’t support it. We have rules about speeding, and the cars still speed. We need to have good behavior in this room so we can get the city business done.”

Commissioner Gail Johnson asked if they could discuss the rules separately, but Poe asked her to give all her comments at once. She said she wasn’t sure how to balance having an orderly meeting (with registration) with some flexibility for people to speak as things come up. She suggested that they have a 30-minute deadline before the meeting for sign-ups, but people who aren’t registered can speak if there’s time left over at the end of the comment period.

Commissioner Arreola said he disagreed with the narrative that these rule changes are adversarial to the citizens; he didn’t see anything in the rules that would stifle debate “because at the end of the day, the rules exist to breed inclusion and breed discussion, because that is the essence of our legislative process.”

Mayor Poe said he disagrees with any limitations on the content of speech, as proposed in #11 above, and he doesn’t want any limitations on the topics in general public comment. He liked the idea of written comments but said the city will need to “put some resources behind” educating people about the changes. 

Arreola argued that anything other than “strictly procedural” items (moving to extend a meeting, calling a recess, etc.) should allow public comment. He included referring something to staff or committee in items that should allow public comment.

Johnson said the public should be able to talk about politicians and businesses, but the commissioners shouldn’t. 

Poe recommended allowing registration to stay open until the end of the item under discussion. He added that early comment and general comment should be first-come-first-served because of the 30-minute time limits, so there would be an incentive to sign up before the meeting. But he wanted to keep registration open until the end of the discussion.

Hayes-Santos said that leaving registration open will “cause a lot of kerfuffle,” with people waiting to sign up so they can go last, for example. He made a motion to change it to 30-minute advance registration, but the commission decided to let the clerk’s office make a recommendation about a deadline for registration.

He added the following to the motion:

12. Topics in general public comment are not restricted to local relevance or city business.

13. Early public comment goes before general public comment in the afternoon agenda.

During public comment on the motion, Robert Mounts quoted the City Attorney’s memo, which was included in the agenda backup: “It is difficult to regulate civility without regulating content.” He called attention to language in the proposed rules about “outraging others” and “outbursts of approval,” saying those limit free expression. Mounts also said that trying to balance pro and con speakers (another provision in the proposed rules, which wasn’t discussed by the commissioners) would be a problem in meetings like the one on GNV Rise, when almost all speakers were against the motion. 

Debbie Martinez said that this is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. “County commissioners would never – never – treat citizens this way.”  She suggested that commissioners look across the street (to the county commission) instead of copying rules from other cities. (The county offers 2-4 opportunities for citizens to speak at each meeting.)

Bruce Blackwell said that  Gainesville is within the parameters of other cities in its rules. He recommended doing the business first and having all public comment at the end—or perhaps a separate meeting for public comment. 

Jim Konish also read from the City Attorney’s memo. He pointed out that while some people are allowed to applaud, Jo Beaty is immediately thrown out if she claps. “Anything that restricts speech on the basis of content will not stand… You cannot legislate civility… The content-based stuff will go down in flames if anyone wants to challenge it.” He added, “When a commissioner walks out of the room every time a former member of the Public Service Commission comes up to speak, that is not civility…” 

Karen Arrington said nothing should be changed in the current rules. She said the proposed rule is bureaucratic and confusing. “People come to public comment because they’re concerned about things.” She said there should be no restrictions on public speech and added, “Commissioner Warren, my parents never lectured me like you lecture us. It makes me appreciate my parents… You don’t have a right to treat us like six-year-olds. People come here because they are just as concerned about the way government is run as you all are. And you need to extend that same respect.” Arrington also noted that several items were placed on the meeting’s agenda at the last minute (during agenda review) and wondered how people can register in advance if they don’t know what will be talked about. 

Janice Garry said she had never seen anyone cut off before their 3 minutes are up, adding, “I personally am deeply offended when people make personal attacks.” She pledged to make her own comments about issues and not people. 

David Ruiz supported the changes with the exception of pre-registration. He thought that people who pre-register should go first, but others should be able to speak if there is time. 

Wilbur Holloway read parts of Susan Bottcher’s letter to the editor, talking about a “toxic” atmosphere. Holloway said the same people go to county commission and school board meetings, but the atmosphere there is not toxic. He said the people on the dais are the difference and talked about the city’s debt, panhandlers, and potholes that haven’t been repaired: “You’re running the city into the ground.”

Gary Gordon, a former Mayor-Commissioner, said, “It’s remarkable to me how far things have fallen, both among city government and maybe among the public, I’m not sure.” He said they didn’t have any time limits at all when he was on the commission. Commissioners interacted with the public during public comment periods. He said, “It used to be a meeting of the city commission with the people.” He added that he hasn’t observed the “toxic” behavior described in Bottcher’s letter: “Thank you, Susan, for the creative writing. If you really want to breed public participation, eliminate as many limits as possible. You don’t want to limit them. People want to be encouraged to come. They don’t want to feel like they have to work through a morass of rules and regulations just to speak to you. It’s hard enough speaking and getting any kind of indication as to whether anybody is really listening because a lot of times, it feels like it’s a stone wall.”

Jo Beaty said that eliminating Robert’s Rules of Order leaves no parliamentary authority. She read from a Florida League of Cities handbook that recommended knowledge of parliamentary procedure: “Unless parliamentary procedure is observed, the rights of free speech, free assembly, and freedom to unite in organization are useless and hollow rights. Parliamentary procedure gives reality to these democratic concepts.”

Beaty said that the commission’s rules don’t cover all the situations covered by Robert’s Rules. On the topic of early public comment, she said that people take time out of their schedules to come to meetings, and they come when they can; early comment may be overly restrictive because it doesn’t allow them to speak later if they are able to come back. She recommended guidelines for the conduct of commissioners, saying they don’t hold each other to standards of civility. 

Tana Silva said some of the proposed rules violate content-neutral principles. She said that sometimes the mayor abuses recess – for example, he once called a recess when a vote didn’t go his way and “went to his office to meditate.” Also, “Applause after someone speaks doesn’t interrupt anything. We see selective enforcement of that and keep hearing an imaginary story of people booing, hissing, heckling, and making fun of elders.”

She said that if they incorporate written comments, they should be read aloud at the meetings. She continued, “Here are citizens trying to engage, yet you gladly pay for contrived events and call that community engagement. Final point: Look in the mirror. You’re taking no responsibility for the hostility. You’re right, people don’t want to come here. I dread being lectured and even screamed at from the dais, but I can’t not speak up. I’m not in a cabal, I can think for myself, and I assume others do, too. If some people bug you, hear them, talk with them. You impugn their motives and maturity and want to stifle them, even if it means intimidating any citizens from addressing you.

“Watchdog media are dying, while four years of mismanagement and terrible governance have blown up the budget and isolated the commission from the public. I hope experienced management—welcome, Mr. Feldman[new City Manager]—can begin undoing the damage. Start today.”

Nathan Skop agreed with Silva’s comments and said it was “disappointing” that Johnson once again left as soon as he came up to speak. “Civility works both ways, and I don’t think that’s being civil. I’m her constituent. Like me or not, I have valid things to say.” He said that the current rules have worked perfectly well for years and don’t need to be changed. He noted that Harvey Ward was absent, especially since he’s running for re-election.

Skop continued, “It’s amazing to watch the Gainesville City Commission and their creative-writing sycophants keep projecting false narratives in a desperate attempt to silence the public, suppress access to public records, and shift attention away from the 15.64% property tax increase, the 32% Fire Assessment Fee increase, and nearly 10% increase in GRU electric system revenue requirements for GRU electric rates, including the most recent fuel adjustment charge increase. These increases are being imposed on hard-working Gainesville families.

“You don’t want to hear the truth. You don’t want to hear from the constituents. You don’t want to hear from the county, and your solution is to silence the critics… This is hardly moving in the right direction…  There are several flaws and deficiencies in the proposed rules: Early citizen comment—if you speak and you waive your rights, what happens in the case of Commissioner Warren, whose prerogative was to bring forth a motion. You wouldn’t be able to speak on that motion? That’s not appropriate, commissioners. Commissioner Warren had every right to bring forth the motion, and citizens have every right, despite speaking, to speak to a substantive motion.

“Secondly, member comment motions. Again, we should be able to speak. Y’all put things on… at the end of the meeting and ram things through.”

Gabe Kaimowitz said, “I can’t tell you how many of [Hayes-Santos’s] amendments are unconstitutional. Why you get away with it, I finally figured it out after 30 years: Nobody sues you. There’s no question that if you were sued for these rules that you’re proposing, half of them would be thrown out, at least.”

Susan Bottcher said that the changes are well within the limits of free speech. She praised Helen Warren (“I know her to be a compassionate, deeply sympathetic and warm-hearted person”), saying she’s been on that side of the dais. Bottcher recommended attending Gainesville’s Citizens’ Academy to get an inside look at how the city operates. 

Sharon Bauer said she’s been coming to City Commission meetings for 50 years. “Since last year, increasing numbers of progressive Democrats who have supported and voted for you have come out to meetings to criticize the actions of this commission, including former mayors and commissioners, respected architects, planners, journalists, attorneys, and activists of all kinds.  Unlike the county commission, which thanks even critics, takes their comments under advisement, answers their questions and moves on, several members of this commission follow the lead of the mayor and continually attack citizens who disagree. 

“We’ve been lectured at length on racism by Mayor Poe before we could comment on the proposed elimination of single-family zoning, and we’ve been called NIMBYs by Commissioner Warren, who may also have been the one… who accused of us being opposed to ‘those people’ in our neighborhoods because we didn’t want the noise and traffic of multifamily and mixed use next door to us. We’ve been screamed at—the whole audience, at a budget hearing—by Commissioner Ward because a couple of commenters said mean things like ‘You’re all a disgrace.’… 

“When you’re elected, we get the right to criticize you; you don’t get the right to insult our intelligence and impugn our motives. You have to listen to us; we don’t have to sit here and listen to another long-rambling, preachy lecture. Over and over, you’ve told us what innovative, progressive geniuses you are and how superior you are to your predecessors, who didn’t dare to tackle the kinds of issues you are, displaying arrogance as well as ignorance of this city’s history.

“One of your stated goals is to be a model for other cities. Everything, you say, must be world class, the best in the world, not just the best in the country, but best in the world, and it comes at a world-class price. We’d settle for adequate city services that we no longer have because they’re too mundane to get you the admiration that you crave from other politicians in other cities. Unfortunately, as long as you can continue to win elections with the support of only 8% of the city’s registered voters, you don’t care what the rest think. 

“The armed guards and rule changes aren’t about security and certainly aren’t about increasing citizen input. This is about protecting fragile egos and intimidating and silencing your critics, and it’s doomed to failure.”

When the discussion moved back to the commission, Hayes-Santos added two more items to the motion:

14. Early registration would not be required for items that come up during the meeting and are not on the agenda.

15. If someone speaks during early comment, they can speak at items that come up during the meeting and are not on the agenda.

 Arreola said that he preferred early registration to be “optional, not necessary.” He also said he’s a parliamentary geek and gave a brief history of parliamentary procedure. He said, “You cannot undo the centuries of influence” and said that everything that just happened in considering these rules would be exactly the same under the new rules. 

All of the above numbered items passed unanimously except for #11, which passed 4-2, with Poe and Hayes-Santos in dissent. 

These rules will be brought up again at a future meeting, after staff and the City Attorney go through them and make recommendations.

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