On Monday, December 11, Milford City Council voted to change rules related to public comments at meetings. The change is designed to allow more public input into Council decisions.
“We have put together options for expanding public comments and a revised set of rules and procedures of how we operate council meetings,” City Manager Eric Norenberg said. “For example, right now every specific things that are required to have public hearings by law or City charter. Putting in new processes in public hearing procedures in the charter, like who speaks when, how long, etc. Now the discussion is how much public comment we want to include.” Mr. Norenberg explained that there were four items that appear on the agenda regularly that Council could decide should have public hearings, including ordinances, resolutions, purchases over $50,000 and contracts.
Another change Mr. Norenberg proposed was including routine items like minutes in what was known as a consent agenda. Those items could be voted on with one motion and with one vote, saving time. If there was something Council wanted to discuss that was included in the consent agenda, it could be removed from the consent agenda and voted on separately.
“I know that public comment is wonderful, but from past experience, it has to be managed,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said. “So, the rules have to be really set because some topics are going to be more important to some people than to other people. It is going to draw more people than other subjects. This has come up a few times since I’ve been sitting here and it has been changed a couple of times. It is all about how it is managed. You must be clear with the rules and repeat, repeat, repeat.”
City Solicitor David Rutt explained that there were many different ways to approach public comment. He said that the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) did not require public comment at all. He stated that if Council decided to add public comment, they had to be consistent, especially with the time limits.
“You cannot say I will let you talk longer because I like what you are saying but cut off someone else because you don’t like what they are saying,” Mr. Rutt said. “A lot of municipalities will have a comment section at the very beginning of the meeting and it will say comments on any agenda item. Some will have a separate comment section on non-agenda items. If you start having public comment on each and every item and say three minutes, it can get time consuming. I only know of one municipality that does that and that is Rehoboth. Their meetings last consistently until midnight, they just go on and on. Every other municipality has a from where a person will sign when they come in that says they wish to speak, identify themselves and have the item or topic they wish to discuss.” Councilwoman Lisa Peel asked if only City residents could speak, but Solicitor Rust said that it is often open to anyone who wishes to speak.
Councilman Jamie Burk said that he had concerns about public comment before the meeting starts. He was concerned that something could come up during a presentation that may generate additional questions. “That came into play during the last public hearing,” Councilman Burk said. “Joe [Wiley] had a few questions but by then the public comment was closed and he had some follow-up questions that he couldn’t ask. Then you have a citizen leaving who feels he didn’t get his answers.” Solicitor Rutt explained that the public has a right to comment but that the public does not have the opportunity to come back over and over.
Councilman Burk said that he did not feel a need to have public comment on purchases because Council often approved large purchases during the budget hearing process where the public could express concerns. In addition, Council may approve half of a large purchase one year and half the next which could be confusing to the public. He also felt there was no need for public comment during contracts. He did feel that ordinances and resolutions should include a public comment option.
Solicitor Rutt also explained that if there was to be a time limit, there needed to be a visible timing device to ensure that every person got the amount of time they were supposed to during the public comment. Mr. Norenberg said they could purchase a large digital clock that could be set at three minutes so the public and Council would see that everyone got the proper time to speak.
Council requested that Mr. Norenberg work with the City Clerk to develop a written policy for public comment when ordinances and resolutions appeared on the agenda.
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