Folks who attend Tuesday’s 5:30 p.m. meeting of the Fayetteville City Council will get an opportunity to watch aldermen consider the City Council Convenience Act of 2017.
Or is it the Presiding Mayor Protection Act of 2017?
It might also be labeled the Staff And Consultant Empowerment Act.
At last Tuesday’s City Council agenda session, Alderman Adella Gray “walked on” — adding an item outside the standard procedures for setting a meeting’s agenda — a proposal to set a permanent five-minute limit on the comments of all speakers at City Council meetings.
In this case, all “speakers” only means the public, the Fayetteville residents or others who take time out to attend a City Council meeting because a matter of utmost importance in their lives or that of the community has moved them to action.
Except for maybe two or three people who make it a hobby to attend and speak at City Council meetings, most residents show up only when an issue is critically important to them. Many go through their lives without ever going to a government meeting. When people show up, it’s because they want their government to hear them.
When that happens, Adella Gray suggests, a maximum of five minutes should suffice.
Not that this is Gray’s idea. She said it’s been bounced around for years, so she decided the City Council should “bring it forward, vote it up or down, and go with it.” She said people at the Arkansas Municipal League, a Little Rock-based association/lobbying group of the state’s elected city leaders, had expressed surprise Fayetteville didn’t already have limits on public speaking.
Last I heard in another matter, Fayetteville was in court arguing the powers that be in Little Rock should not be able to dictate what’s right for Fayetteville. Apparently, there’s a different feeling when it comes to residents and their capacity to address their City Council. Is Fayetteville funky, or is it just like De Queen, Ashdown, Lepanto and all those other cities?
Don Marr, a former alderman who is now Mayor Lioneld Jordan’s chief of staff, said he’s heard complaints from some residents when the community is engaged in a contentious issue — he cited the smoking and civil rights ordinances — and the mayor, after lengthy debate, puts a time limit on those remaining who haven’t spoken. Others, he said, have been frustrated when they’ve had to leave as two or three people spoke for 45 minutes but didn’t allow room for others to chime in.
City Attorney Kit Williams passed out Gray’s proposal, saying other aldermen in the past have brought it up but decided to drop the issue before the City Council ever considered it. Alderman Sarah Marsh, whose impatience with public comments has shown on occasion, suggested the city invest in a microphone for the public that automatically shuts off at the five-minute mark.
As for Gray’s proposal, Marsh suggested placing it on the consent agenda, a collection of noncontroversial items aldermen approve without debate. The other aldermen had the good sense not to just sneak the measure through.
Mayor Jordan said he had anticipated “this day was coming” so he’s purchased a light system that shows one color at the start of a speaker’s comments, a different color when one minute is left and a third color when time is up. “So I can always say don’t blame me, it’s the light,” Jordan told the City Council last week. Let’s call the system HAL 9000, like that computer who worked with spaceman Dave on “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” HAL could tell members of the public when they want more time. “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
What would I do as an alderman? I would err on the side of public feedback. I would encourage people in my ward to always to call me to talk about their concerns. But I would also respect the value people place on speaking to all eight alderman and the mayor at once, in one location, where the people’s business is transacted.
Gray’s measure would permit the City Council by majority vote to temporarily vacate the five-minute limit as needed. I would flip-flop that — as it is now — and have the City Council vote on those rare occasions debate needs a limit.
I would not set an arbitrary time limit that prejudges the extent to which a matter needs full debate. All municipal matters are not all the same. Sometimes, two people show up to speak. Other times five. It’s a rarity when the room is packed with people wanting to speak, and those are really the times when an on-thespot adjustment by the mayor may be required for efficiency.
And if I tend to roll my eyes when a little old lady repeats something that was said three speakers ago or if I get frustrated with hearing emotional appeals from constituents that can sometime seem redundant, well, I’d probably consider getting off the City Council.
It’s not as though residents aren’t fighting an uphill battle anyway. The deck is stacked in the government’s favor. City staff, consultants, aldermen and people applying to the City Council for some decision are, by rule, given a “presentation period” in which they can, without any legislated time limit, show all sorts of images, charts, videos and maps on a big projection screen visible to the entire room and to people watching the proceedings on TV at home.
City Council rules, however, prohibit concerned residents from making use of the same presentation capabilities. By rules, they can give their materials to the city clerk for distribution to the aldermen and mayor. And that has to be turned in to the city clerk by 9 a.m. on the day of the 5:30 p.m. meeting.
How many average residents happen to know about those rules before they show up to express themselves?
Mayors can preside over meetings and do what is necessary to keep them orderly. Gray appears to suggest Jordan hasn’t done that adequately and Jordan himself wants people to blame the light, not him.
As aldermen considered where to place Gray’s walked-on item, Williams said “Let’s put it at the end after we’ve’ heard everybody talking.” And that’s where the matter will be, so anyone concerned about public comments will have to wait until the end of the meeting for the opportunity.
Greg Harton is editorial page editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NWAGreg.
Print Headline: Here to listen (for 5 minutes)