Milford City Council recently made changes to their public comment code to allow members of the public to speak about any city-related business during the 15-minute public comment period at the start of every meeting. Mark Whitfield, City Manager, explained that this was at the request of several council members who wanted to increase public input at meetings.
“I think there was concern before about open public comment and we’ve allowed it, and it’s not been that much of a problem. There’s not been a lot of people that have commented on something that you couldn’t comment on during the council meeting,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “I agree that look, we keep it to three minutes, right. As long as the Sergeant in Arms so to speak is clear on that, who cares? Open mic as you want to call it, I don’t I don’t see that being a real problem. I mean, I enjoy when the voting public has a voice. If that voice is recorded in a public meeting, for whatever reason, as long as it’s not attacking us or being rude, it’s okay. I don’t see a problem with it.”
Mayor Archie Campbell pointed out that in other towns, like Seaford and Georgetown, people have been escorted from the meeting by the police after they became unruly during public comment. He was concerned there would be a neighbor talking about another neighbor, something that had nothing to do with the city.
“Just so you know, some small localities had open mic nights, and the person speaking was offensive. Using offensive words,” Councilman Andy Fulton said. “And the mayor threw the person out and then they had to pay the person off because of lawsuits because of infringement upon his rights. So I would suggest that we keep it associated with the agenda items.”
Councilman Dan Marabello, who served as mayor at one time, stated that there was public comment permitted when he was in the mayor’s seat and there was not an issue. City Clerk Terri Hudson pointed out that the comment was limited to agenda items during Councilman Marabello’s term. Councilman Marabello stated that he did not recall that, but felt it would not hurt to try allowing open public comment.
“So, you know the government is municipal government and is for the people, by the people, so to hear the people as much as possible is good. And I know we’re saying that we do that now, but it’s limited to the agenda items,” Councilman Jason James said. “I think that when the solicitor, when we’re going to public comment sessions, he explains the rules of engagement, you can’t do derogatory statements, racial statements, whatever. And if he repeats that for the public comment period, for this 15 minute public comment to two to three minutes, we give the public an opportunity to prove whether they can conduct themselves. I don’t think we should have one bad actor take the opportunity for every other citizen. I would like to have the people to be able to speak as much and as often as they possibly can.”
Councilman Culotta agreed that there needed to be regulation and that Mayor Campbell needed to let people know their time was up or that he would not tolerate a certain tone or certain words. He felt if someone wanted to argue during public comment, they could have the conversation with the chief of police.
“I would just caution that from a law enforcement perspective, we would be extremely limited to being able to escort somebody out because comments were offensive as you really then start to go into first amendment rights and you all becoming victims of a crime,” Chief Cecilia Ashe said,” So it would be highly unlikely that I would get up and escort somebody out of here because they made a comment. So, I just want to kind of set that ground rule so that you guys are aware of how we would proceed.”
Mayor Campbell recalled someone who came to the meeting with handouts and when he was told he could not give them to council, he became angry and stormed out of the meeting. Although it did not escalate, Mayor Campbell pointed out that it could have easily been a problem.
“Those points are well taken,” Councilman James said. “I think to Councilman Culotta’s and Councilman Fulton’s comments, I would really like to think it will be to our advantage. I know it is legal exposure and we need to know how do we conduct ourselves to minimize, you’re never going to totally get legal exposure to zero, not going to happen, but how do you minimize it.”
Councilman Culotta pointed out that three minutes does not seem like a long time, but it might be beneficial to reduce the time someone can speak to two minutes. It was also important to make it clear that council would not engage, there would be no debate and they would simply listen to the citizen’s concerns.
“And if I can add for the chiefs standpoint, most of the people we’ve had call and want to speak were people that have been stopped. gotten a ticket right now. We have a situation which I’m sure you’re aware of,” Hudson said. “A gentleman was stopped, involved the stop signs, and I believe there’s an investigation within the police department and he is constantly in touch with us wanting information. He wants to come before council so bad. And I just don’t think that’s a good situation for any of our employees. Not when there is an open investigation.”
Councilman Culotta again pointed out that council would not be engaging during public comment and that if the gentleman came in to say that he felt he was being treated unfairly by the police, he has two minutes to say why he feels that way, but that council would not react. Mayor Campbell pointed out that the citizen would come to council expecting a result and Councilman Culotta stated that it would be made clear that council would only listen to his comments.
“I’m sorry, we’ve discussed before in our judicial system, though it’s supposed to be blind and operate, wholly judicial, it is encumbered by public opinion,” Councilman Fultons said. “And if a person gets in front, and we allow them an open mic to the entire populace of the city, because that’s what this is, then that person can put out whatever jargon they want at a city council meeting, for two minutes, whatever they want for two minutes and then sits down. And we don’t have to respond. We shouldn’t respond. But the point is a message has gone from the council chambers out to the entire populace. And we’ve got that.”
Councilman James again stated that would be stifling the entire citizenship due to one person. Councilman Fulton also reminded council that they were voted in to be the voice of the various wards, indicating that he felt an constituent could come to him in his ward and he would bring their concerns to council without them having to come speak in public.
“That’s correct. And as Councilman Fulton makes a very good point, we all do our jobs differently. We are as engaged as much or as little as we want to be as an elected official,” Councilman Culotta said “And maybe that person doesn’t feel like I am responding. He may think “I have a problem with this. I’ve emailed Councilman Culotta and he hasn’t responded”. So, that opportunity to speak to council should let them come here to air their grievances.”
Councilman Brian Baer pointed out that not everyone was aware what ward they were in, especially since there had been some redistricting. He suggested limiting comments to city business rather than opening it up to anything. He felt it was not appropriate to hear someone’s diatribe about a particular religion or an argument with a neighbor. Councilman Culotta asked how city business would be defined and Whitfield stated that anyone who wanted to speak during the public comment section of the meeting would be required to fill out a card or paper with details on what they planned to talk about. Mayor Campbell pointed out that in other towns, the issues were between council and the mayor, not the public. Councilman James stated that he had no concerns with that in Milford.
“We set the tone because I know those that listen to our deliberations, we don’t agree on a lot of things,” Councilman James said. “People won’t realize it by the way we’re speaking but we understand that, we’re supposed to be statesmen. We will make our points and then the votes are where they are but we leave here and have conversations on the way out the door and we’re not mad at each other because we know that we’re all trying to do this. We set the tone and it’s important if we if we continue to do that. I think we’ll be okay.”
Councilman Mike Boyle agreed.
“I’ve been asked by people, how do you get along? Our disagreement is never in what we want to get done. Our disagreement is how are we going to get it done?” Councilman Boyle said. “Yes, I think we all buy into the end goal is to do this. And any disagreement we have maybe on the path that we take, but in the end, whatever one we select is going to get there. So yeah, I don’t think we got a problem.”
Council unanimously approved a 15-minute public comment section at the start of each meeting allowing two-minute comments related to city business only at all council meetings.
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