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City Commission will consider Climate Emergency Resolution and new meeting rules

BY JENNIFER CABRERA / DECEMBER 4, 2019

The Gainesville City Commission’s Agenda on December 5 will cover, among other topics, the City Auditor search (they will select candidates to interview), a discussion on “Micromobility” (electric scooters, electric bikes, etc.), a presentation by Griffin & Strong Consulting Group on Racial and Gender Disparity, a discussion of the Open Letter to the School Board, a proclamation declaring a Climate Emergency, to be followed by a resolution declaring a Climate Emergency (it is unclear why the discussion of a proposed resolution comes after a proclamation of nearly the same thing), and proposed changes to the rules for City Commission meetings. 

Resolution of Climate Emergency

The Resolution of Climate Emergency has many facets, but one noteworthy piece is the declaration that the “City of Gainesville Commission commits to a  citywide mobilization effort… which…  ends citywide greenhouse-gas emissions as quickly as possible and no later than 2030, and immediately initiates an effort to safely draw down carbon from the atmosphere.” This is interesting because the City Commission is very proud that Gainesville leads the state in its use of renewable energy, but the increased use of the biomass plant resulted in a doubling of CO2 emissions from 2017 to 2018, with 2019 on pace to exceed 2018. GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski routinely declares that the biomass plant is carbon neutral, but the fact is that it emits far more CO2 than GRU’s other plants, and the parade of trucks that deliver wood to the Deerhaven Renewable Generating Station also release emissions into the environment (the graph is from the Ops update included in the backup to this week’s meeting).

Commission Rules

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The changes to the commission rules were mostly covered in our previous article. The changes add an Early Public Comment period, which gives members of the public 3 minutes (or 5 minutes if speaking on more than one agenda item) to comment on agenda items at the beginning of the meeting, instead of sitting through the whole meeting to wait for the item to come up. People who speak during the Early Public Comment period will not be able to speak when those agenda items are considered by the commission. If new items come up for discussion during Commission Comment, early commenters can speak on those items. There are two Early Public Comment periods, one at the beginning of the afternoon session and one at the beginning of the evening session (after Proclamations). 

General Public Comment is now limited to one opportunity per person per meeting (down from 3 opportunities earlier this year, which was decreased to 2 over the summer), for a maximum of 3 minutes. (The Alachua County Commission has up to 4 comment periods, depending on whether they have an evening session, and members of the public can speak at any or all of them.)

A change during Proclamations is that “applause, cheering, and outbursts of approval” are now specifically allowed. Although these “outbursts” have been permitted during Proclamations for quite some time, they were previously against the rules.

The previous version of the rules stated that the Audit and Finance Committee “shall consist of the Mayor… and one City Commissioner appointed by the Mayor.” It now states that the committee “shall consist of the Mayor… and the Mayor Pro Tempore.”

Individuals who want to speak during General Public Comment, Early Public Comment, or on agenda items must register prior to speaking. The rules do not state how long before the meeting (or before the agenda item) this registration must happen. The rules also do not specify how individuals may register. The rules will take effect as soon as they are passed, so these details must be hammered out in time to permit communication of the new registration rules before the next meeting.

The rules give the presiding officer (generally the Mayor) the power to establish “other time limits” and specifically to “adopt a time limitation to provide equal time for opponents and proponents speaking to any particular issue.” As Robert Mounts pointed out during the November 7 City Commission meeting, this might have resulted in suppressing a large number of public comments during the GNV Rise discussions. The recent discussions about raising property taxes and GRU rates were similarly one-sided, with dozens of people speaking but only 2 or 3 of them speaking in favor of the changes.

The days of speakers approaching the podium to give public comment are over. Members of the public will now be called to the podium by the clerk; there are no rules governing the order in which speakers will be called. This raises the possibility of favoring certain speakers and moving others to the end; the presiding officer could then declare that the allotted time for public comment has expired before they could speak.

The section on “disruptive activity” may lead to lawsuits, as some of the prohibitions are arguably against free speech principles. Specifically, the rules on “Use of words that may threaten or outrage others” and “Using obscene, profane, or vulgar language” run counter to the advice of the City Attorney’s office: “Accordingly, this Office advises against a civility rule or a rule on decorum. Such a rule would likely not survive a First Amendment challenge because it will almost always address the content of the speech. Any restriction on speech must be content-neutral.”

There is also a new rule on Commission Conduct: “During commission meetings, commissioners may not advocate for or against anyone running for office. Members of the commission may not advertise for-profit businesses during commission meetings.”

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