Gainesville City Commission votes to add time for speakers who use translators but votes against adding an evening General Public Comment session

Gainesville City Commission considers public input rules changes on February 9


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the February 9 General Policy Committee meeting, the Gainesville City Commission discussed possible changes to their procedures for community input. In the end, they voted to give speakers who use translators extra time but voted against adding an evening session of General Public Comment.

Community Input Procedure

The topic was introduced by Commissioner Ed Book, who said his passion is for the commission to always be thinking about how to work better together and allow people to feel like they are being heard, to give people additional ways to get information from the City’s website, and to “do that in a way that makes us more effective.” He showed a letter with 15 suggestions for improvement.

Under “Access and Accommodation,” Book pointed out that there is currently no accommodation made, in terms of time, for non-English speakers who want to make public comment. He suggested allowing six minutes, which would give time to use a translator.

Under “Agenda Rule Compliance,” Book said that there is no enforcement of the commission’s rules for publishing agendas and backup materials in a timely manner: “If we don’t comply with our own rules… we either need to change it or abide by it in general.” He said they should make sure backup items are submitted to the Clerk by specific deadlines, “and unless there’s some of these exceptions [like an emergency or time-sensitive item], then we reschedule.”

Lobby changes

Book asked City Manager Cynthia Curry to talk about the new plan to enhance customer service in the lobby of City Hall. Curry said that the security guard, who currently sits at the main desk in the lobby, will be moved to the east side of the lobby, and the main desk will have a full-time City employee “who is fully versed in City services and information. And they will be there to welcome guests and to direct and guide as appropriate.”

Book said the Thomas Center already has a similar set-up, and he has already spoken with GRU about doing something similar in their lobby. 

General Public Comment

Moving to rules about opportunities for the public to speak during meetings, Book said his proposal for General Public Comment “simply goes back to a very historical precedent that went on for many, many years, which was the opportunity for three chances to speak towards the General Public Comment.” The latest version of the rules eliminated the late afternoon session; a previous version had three opportunities–one in the afternoon, one at the beginning of the evening session, and one at the end of the evening session.

Book said a General Public Comment session should be added back to any meeting in which the commission has evening business and that he was open to adding it to either the beginning or end of the evening session.

myGNV app

Book also thought the myGNV phone app should be promoted more and that it should be easier to find the page where citizens can compliment the work of City employees: “It can’t be three to four clicks deep because people won’t get that far.”

Book also suggested printing out a guide for navigating city commission meetings, from how to find the agenda to how to sign up to speak. He proposed putting meeting notices on the monitors in the lobby of City Hall and asking for less information from citizens who sign up to speak at meetings. 

Pooling comments

Interim Policy Oversight Administrator Morgan Spicer presented some research her office had done on how other governmental entities handle requests to “pool” time: these policies allow multiple people to designate a single spokesperson who gets additional minutes to give a longer presentation.

Spicer reviewed the current opportunities for the public to speak at city commission meetings:

  • General Public Comment at 1:00: speak to items not on the agenda, for up to three minutes.
  • Early Public Comment at the start of the morning, afternoon, and evening sessions: speak to items on the agenda if they can’t stay for the actual discussion; speakers are allotted three minutes for one item or five minutes to speak on multiple items.
  • Public comment on agenda items, up to three minutes.

Spicer said Hollywood, Miami-Dade County, and Jacksonville do not allow pooling of public comment. Santa Barbara, California, used to have a policy where members of the public could give their time to one speaker, who could speak up to 10 minutes, but they reversed that earlier this year over abuse of the process. Commissioners said that only a few people routinely used the pooled time, so it was “disproportionate.”

Some municipalities, such as Orlando and Hendersonville, don’t allow pooled time but encourage people with similar viewpoints to appoint a spokesperson to reduce repetitive statements; those speakers are not granted any additional time.

Spicer said most municipalities had an “all-or-nothing” policy in which people could waive their time and give it to another speaker, but a speaker could not speak for part of the time and then give their remaining time to another speaker. 

In Alachua County, the Chair can allow people in attendance to pool their time if the Chair determines that will allow for a more efficient use of time. The rules do not outline how much time can be given to one person or how many people can pool their time.

In Tallahassee, the Chair can require big groups to appoint someone to speak on their behalf and can also designate the length of time allotted to the speaker. 

In Clearwater, a representative of a group is given three minutes plus one additional minute for every person in the group, up to a maximum of ten minutes. College Station, Texas, has a similar rule allowing an individual to speak for 10 minutes on behalf of a group of five or more. College Station also allows six minutes for speakers who use translators.

In San Antonio, Texas, individuals are given three minutes to speak but a group of three or more people may designate a speaker who will have nine minutes to speak. Spicer also gave a few examples of municipalities that have different rules for legislative or quasi-judicial items than for items that don’t have public hearings.

Spicer said one advantage of allowing speakers to pool their time is that an individual who has more than three minutes to speak may be able to develop more cohesive or detailed arguments for or against an item than several individual speakers. It could also reduce duplication of arguments made in front of the commission and also reduce the number of people who want to speak, potentially resulting in a shorter or more effective comment period.

She said disadvantages could include keeping track of who has given their time to someone else and the possibility that some people could routinely be given more time to speak than others. 

Commission discussion

Commissioner Reina Saco said she was glad to hear the proposal for doubling the allotted time for someone who uses a translator. Although she said it has only happened a few times and the Mayor has discretion to allow extra time, “putting it in writing is not a terrible idea.” She also said she didn’t “entirely dislike” the idea of pooling time but said they should consider details like whether all the people would have to stay until the designated speaker had a chance to speak. “Is it going to be like our lobbyist requirement that very few seem to follow, anyway?… I think I would need a little more definition of what a ‘group’ or ‘organization’ would entail, just to make sure that it’s not abused.”

Saco also suggested putting links to “hot topics” on the home page of the City’s website.

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut favored pooling time “more on when we have major issues that we are discussing… If you have 20 people to say, ‘I agree, I agree, I agree,’ let one person speak for that group. You might give them 15 minutes if it’s a whole long group, then the person has the time to fully develop a presentation. Maybe they want to do a Powerpoint on their particular topic.”

Chestnut also wondered when the City was going to redesign the meeting room, “making it user-friendly. That’s what people have asked for. They want it to be warm and inviting and comfortable chairs.”

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker wondered whether it was possible to give “subject matter experts some sort of additional time to be able to present to us.”

Commissioner Bryan Eastman liked the idea of simplifying the sign-in cards to ask for less information: “There’s really no reason for us to be getting all this information. And if you don’t need it, you might as well not collect it.” He also agreed that the commission should do a better job of following its rules: “There’s not a specific action item in here, but I just will continue to press that we try to get these agenda items in on time so that we can all have time to review it.”

Eastman was concerned that pooling time might be too distracting: “I wonder what would it be like if [our staff member is] kind of quietly sitting there, trying to make sure she’s not disrupting the meeting, trying to get things signed, if she’s saying, ‘What organization are you with, who are the names of the people, is this a real person who’s here?'” He said he worried about the flow of the meeting and what it would be like for the staff that have to implement that.

Commissioner Casey Willits pointed out that the commission has the option of voting to not accept the agenda as a means of enforcing the rule that items should be submitted on time. “And if we don’t approve it, it might feel harsh to the commissioner who put something on there late.”

Willits was interested in pooling time because “I think it could be really useful to hear from subject matter experts… or on particular issues that… there’s a lot of interest in.” He said it’s hard for some people to tell their own stories, so other people could tell them. “So I like this idea, but I’m afraid of all the negative consequences that could be there, of it being abused, of it being less than useful.” He said it might be good to just let the Mayor make decisions in the moment because he’s elected city-wide: “The ability for the Chair to give some extra time or some flexibility, I like the idea of that because rules can be constrictive.”

Willits said some will say there’s a chance that would not be fair, “but with elected office comes some power to drive our agenda, our conversation… If someone wants that power, they can run for Mayor, you know, and beat you and have that power to give a subject matter expert two extra minutes.”

Mayor Harvey Ward said that while discussion about rules is “extremely important, it’s kind of inside baseball, too… The rules of baseball matter. But it is inside.” He said that during the discussion about the “gun violence crisis,” public comments had drifted to 3:40 or four minutes. “It is not power; it is responsibility… If I was giving a friend who was having trouble composing themselves an extra minute to talk, then I felt like I owed that to people for the rest of the meeting, too.” He said he wasn’t sure how to do that with people who have expertise in a topic “because it is going to be unfair… I don’t know that it is fair of me to say, ‘I know you know more, so I’m going to let you talk more.'”

He said the issue of whether to allow more time for experts or whether to allow the pooling of comments “is a far more complex issue than it probably ought to be, and part of that is because we overthink it in Gainesville. Most cities just don’t do this stuff. You get a couple minutes, and that’s it… We are pretty lax about how we do this, and I think that’s good, but we also overthink it.”

Regarding adding backup to the agenda on time, Ward said, “I’m working really hard to make sure that we don’t add items after the fact, that we don’t add items later, but I do want us, whenever possible, to have all of the information we possibly can have on something. So if something comes in on Tuesday before a Thursday meeting, I would rather have that backup information than withhold that backup information. But let’s really try hard to follow the rules… and treat deadlines like actual deadlines. I will work extra hard to try to do that.”

Public comment

During public comment, Debbie Martinez said, “The amount of staff time going into an orchestrated four-years-long gutting of city commission meeting rules is astounding… You may not like what the citizens have to say, but it is your job to listen… Former Mayor Poe, within weeks of his being sworn in as Mayor in May 2016, pushed through adoption of significant restrictions of public comment, which provided the tools to allow him more discretion of control of meetings… Then the early 2019 rule changes, again under the Poe-era commission, arose from the huge turn-out of residents to defeat GNV Rise… I support going back to the old rules that worked well for decades that allowed more opportunities for people to speak during regular City Commission meetings.”

Bobby Mermer asked for a return of the ability to set notifications for certain topics on the City’s website. He disagreed with pooling time because “there are some people in the community that would be very aggressive in bullying if they are named as the representative… People [will be afraid] to speak after certain individuals that speak for ten minutes.” He liked the idea of giving subject matter experts more time but said there should be “guardrails” like requiring the experts to register ahead of the meeting.

First motion fails

Book made a motion to 

  • Adopt the provisions listed in his letter (except pooling comments) and direct the charter officers to carry out those action items;
  • Revise commission rules to allow six minutes for speakers using translators and add a General Public Comment period at the beginning of any evening session of a City Commission Regular Meeting. 

Duncan-Walker seconded the motion. 

Ward said he wasn’t comfortable specifying the inclusion of an organization chart with links to all the City departments “because then we’re micro-managing the heck out of this thing, and I’m not a coder.” Curry said staff had heard the input and would “make it happen” where they could. Book said he would be “unconcerned” if staff came back and said they could not do something on the list. “But this is the intent, to have these things done if they can be done.”

Ward said he was fine with changing commission rules, but he was uncomfortable with so much specific direction to staff regarding the website and myGNV app. He also said, “We have expanded, over the last few years, opportunities for people to give public comment. There are more digital opportunities for people to give public comment than in history. Period. The opportunity to call in and leave a voicemail comment that then is played during the meeting is something that never existed before. General Public Comment in the evening doesn’t relate directly to the items that we’re doing in the evening. People can and should come speak to the individual items. Adding the additional stage for open public comment is an entirely different thing. I don’t support that… We offer more than nearly any city that I’m aware of, right now. And we should–that’s good. But the meeting is about getting the people’s business done.”

Ward said he liked a lot of the items in Book’s letter and didn’t want to vote against them but also didn’t want to vote on such specific direction to staff. 

Ward wanted to split the motion into three parts, but Book said he didn’t want to split it. He said that if his motion was voted down, it could be split later. 

Chestnut said many of the action items are already in process, and “I don’t want to be prescriptive. I want to be supportive, but this is going a bit further than I would personally like to go.” She supported bringing back pooling for a later vote, but she said the charter officers had already heard clearly what Book wanted, and “I think you have achieved your goal.” Book said he hoped it wasn’t just his goal, and Chestnut replied, “You have achieved the goal of improved communication, improved engagement.”

Ward said he supported many things on the list, but “not as a package.”

The motion failed 1-6, with only Book in support. 

Motion for extra time for interpreters passes

Saco made a motion to amend their rules to allow six minutes for people needing an interpreter. Willits seconded the motion. Duncan-Walker asked Saco to amend the motion to ask staff to come back with options for allowing more time for subject matter experts, and Saco agreed. City Attorney Daniel Nee said the motion should be to ask staff to bring back a resolution to amend the rules. Nee also pointed out that sometimes the Chair may limit speakers to less than three minutes if there are a lot of speakers signed up, so he suggested allowing double the time for speakers using a translator. That motion passed unanimously.

Motion for an evening General Public Comment period fails

Book made a motion to bring back a resolution to add a General Public Comment period to the evening session. Chestnut and Duncan-Walker both seconded the motion. Ward asked whether speakers would be limited to one general public comment per day, and Book said that was not his intention: “This is another bite at the apple… I think that’s a very small price to pay for the fact that we have been speaking for hours, and that generates people with additional ideas and information.”

Willits said, “The idea that someone who spoke to us at General Public Comment at 1:00 would get another three minutes at the 5:00 session–for lack of a better term, prime time TV–that definitely bothers me because I want to hear from lots of people.”

Saco said she was fine with moving the 1:00 General Public Comment session to the evening, “but General Public Comment, I feel, is if you want us to know something, and for that we have an email, we have a call-in, we have a plethora of ways to do that general commenting… I want us to be able to get through the business of the agenda.”

Chestnut said, “One of the beauties of living in Gainesville is public engagement… If the person wants to speak two times a day, I’m willing to listen and hear them, because everybody can’t get here at 1:00…  That’s what we’re paid to do… I don’t see a problem with three times a day, but since we’ve got two times a day on the table, that’s what I’m going to vote for.”

Eastman favored limiting General Public Comment to three minutes per person per day. Ward said Book’s proposal would give an advantage to people who have time to come down to City Hall and spend the whole day: “If that’s what we’re looking to do, then okay,” he shrugged.

Book said the maximum impact of an additional General Public Comment session would be 30 minutes, whether or not people spoke more than once, because that’s the length set in the rules: “Personally, given the fact that we’re paid to be here… We just made some decisions related to what we consider our time commitment to the public, and given that, I just don’t think 30 minutes is a way that we can get around saying, ‘I just can’t do it.'” Book seemed to be referring to the commission’s vote against his motion to repeal the 90% raises granted by the previous commission.

Ward said the commission had received a number of emails asking them not to increase public comment. Chestnut responded, “Sometimes those things are organized well,” and Ward said, “Public comment is public comment.”

The motion failed 3-4, with Book, Chestnut, and Duncan-Walker in support. 

  • Ward is a lying, lard-arsed sack of dung.

    Here’s one of Ward’s responses to my email…”Hope things are good in Hidden Pines.” You liberals, he only kissed your arses to get elected. Now shut up.

    All submitted comments are screened through their filter. All Ward did is assume the tyrannical rule his blow buddy set up for him.

  • Once upon a time the people who entered the US legally through Ellis Island were proud to become English speaking American citizens. Now, thanks to the “woke” traitorous idiots who sold America down the tubes special accommodations must be made for people who enter our country (usually illegally) devoid of English language skills because the claim to have “rights.” They have the right to demand special social security and Medicaid benefits, special treatment in our schools in their native language (not English), and of course special treatment in rats’ nests of liberal stupidity such as Gainesville. Nitwits such as the clowns on the Gainesville City Commission are just so generous in virtue signaling their phony generosity with other people’s money, namely that of the taxpayers. Teddy Roosevelt was right when he said that America would become a polyglot boarding house.

    • Todays border and vacation vis migrants have no American affinity with us. They’re simply here to take jobs from District 1, live over capacity in group rental homes, and send money back on Western Union until they can go back. That’s who our GCC is so concerned with, betraying their most loyal voters.

    • Can foreigners vote in a local election? It used to be if you weren’t an American citizen, you couldn’t vote in an election…now they’re signing up convicted felons in the jail and dead people from the cemetery or cheating with the mail-in ballots…what on earth could a non-English speaking foreigner want to address the CC for, to get more free stuff? Property tax payers should get 5 minutes to address the commissioners, utility ratepayers should get 3 min, foreigners who don’t speak English should have to email the commissioners….

      • Regarding those who need translators to address the commission — are they tourists or criminal border jumpers? If they are tourists they have no business with our local government and should just enjoy visiting the parks, springs, etc., and then get out of the country before their tourist visa expires. If they are criminal border jumpers then the city commission is an accessory to their crime of invasion of our country by giving them a voice before the commission and legitimizing their unlawful presence here. Are these people who need translators required to prove that they are here legally? Not likely, since the commissioners are themselves a bunch of self-serving gangsters and bottom feeding blood suckers who would exploit anybody to suit their purposes.

        • Paco: the illegal aliens need the translator so they can get that city ID card that gives them some legitimacy and then put their children in our public school system at a cost of $10k per kid and then they can apply for welfare, section 8 affordable free housing, food stamps, and disability from Social Security, etc.

  • Did the commission not receive a number of emails asking them not to increase their salaries? That sure didn’t stop them then. Fat Harvey doesn’t want any extra comments standing between him and feedin’ time. He’s making Boss Hogg look like a Rhodes Scholar.

    • It’s the peoples’ business and the CC should allow them to speak because many are smarter than them…I have to work everyday from 9 to 5…they should make every accommodation to allow citizens to speak on every item on the agenda before they vote and the citizens should have the opportunity to address & speak at the beginning and end of the morning and evening sessions…
      I shouldn’t have to sign up for anything to speak…If we send an
      Email to the CC or to a commissioner, we should get a return email that they received it and will address it…

      • Maybe the Governor should step in and make it mandatory what you just said…citizens should be able to address their local government…the mayor & GNV CC should be subject to fines and removal by the Governor if they don’t make every attempt to allow citizens to address them…”I don’t mind government, good government…I don’t mind taxes, reasonable taxes”…

    • The commission should not be able to vote themselves a raise larger than 5% without asking the Governor first…it should be a State law. An agency of the state should be investigating this and reverse the raise or bring criminal charges or replace them…

      • They shouldn’t be able to give themselves a raise larger than 3%/yr
        Or increase our utility rates more than 3%/year…the hubris!

  • Probably won’t make any difference how they set the rules since these know-it-alls with zilch industry it large business experience won’t listen anyway. The still don’t see an emergency in repeat lowered credit ratings, financial statements a mess and unfinished for an entire YEAR after year’s end, utility rates and fire assessment hikes, aging GRU plants, etc. but never hear these problems mentioned. Got news for you City Commission: Chapter 9 or State Oversight for all expenditures is on its way!

  • Ed Book should be Mayor. Ward is a joke.
    Trying to reach one of these commissioners is impossible
    They DONT want public input.

    • But Chestnut works more than “full-time” hours a week as commissioner. Guess that puts her in the same class as Harvey “Two Face.”.

      • I’m sure she’s not happy about his vote against more comments and trying to marginalize the voices of her people. And then Wacko Saco is babbling about this many emails, that many emails without stopping to considered how equitable email accessibility is for all “neighbors.”

  • Our own unelected-by-97% mini-UN is so worried about non-citizens. When their own citizens are suffering from their global transplanted policy legacy, more than ever.
    Interesting 🤔🤔👹🤡🤬

  • The mask wearing Marxists don’t want citizens to speak. They don’t want anyone interfering with
    the implementation of their master plan of implementing new world order, great reset, one world government, global totalitarianism.

  • ” Translators ‘ ? If you dont speak english ( the Official Language of Government In America).. They Need to Learn it.. Not the goverment Paying to Interpet into 185 Languages On My Tax dollars.. Let Me guess ” Ward” will be Managing the money for this Project.. That means More and more Money will be ” needed” But Nothing will be done for English speaking .. But Illegal Aliens will be FINE…

  • So….they have time to listen to a bunch of foreigners (probably illegal at that)….but the hell with you and me who pay for this BS!

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