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Council to restrict "Citizen’s Speak"

Action expected on proposed guidelines for public input

SOLON– The Solon City Council is going to look at modifying the way it interacts with the public.
At a meeting June 7, council members and Mayor Steve Stange discussed a resolution establishing guidelines for the Citizen’s Speak portion of regular council agendas.
The changes unsettled two residents, both former council members.
No action was taken, but the resolution is expected to appear again on a future agenda.
Citizen’s Speak is usually the first item on a council agenda, after the perfecting of the agenda. It is a time for residents to address the council regarding an item not on the agenda.
As the town continues to grow, Mayor Stange said, more and more people are going to want to provide input, and council members felt there was a need for guidelines on how that would take place.
The guidelines would require speakers to sign in, identify themselves, limit their comments to a few minutes, and would eliminate the ability to talk back and forth with city officials.
The proposed loss of that interaction prompted former council members Sue Ballantyne and Kevin Samek to voice concerns.
“Is this just applying to Citizen’s Speak at the beginning of the meeting?” Ballantyne asked during council discussion.
“There wouldn’t be a back and forth exchange amongst people that are sitting out in the audience,” Stange replied.
“But a person in the audience could still ask a question on a specific agenda item?” Ballantyne queried further.
“No,” Stange said. “It stops that.”
Newly seated council member Lauren Whitehead said she agreed with the idea of establishing expectations, but also had questions about the proposed policy.
“In the past, people have had opportunity to comment on agenda items after they’ve been discussed by the council,” she said. “Is there an appropriate time for that?” she asked.
“Individually outside these meetings,” suggested council member Steve Duncan. “This is the first council I’ve ever been on where people just have been able to have exchange back and forth in an open meeting.”
Formal meetings are time for council members to discuss agenda items, he added.
But based on conversations she’s had, Whitehead said, “People have the understanding that council is the place to come to interact with council members and to have their voices heard.”
People might not find the new guidelines very inviting, she said, adding she wouldn’t want to discourage people from attending council meetings.
“And it would be a big change,” Duncan admitted.
Stange also had some issues with the proposed rules, noting residents should have an opportunity to speak regarding broader issues like the Johnson County minimum wage.
“I still think that’s important to have that,” Stange said.
“People’ve got to know that they can have that conversation,” he continued. “People have got to be able to voice their concern.”
“Plus, you have to realize, over the last 30 years I guess, we’ve been extremely informal,” City Attorney Jim Martinek said. “Anybody who came in was always allowed to speak their piece. And now we’re transitioning to something much more formal and there’s going to be a learning curve here.”
It will be up to the council to enforce the rules and help residents understand the change, he added.
City Administrator Cami Rasmussen and council member Lynn Morris discussed several options for allowing public input on agenda items, mostly at the discretion of the mayor or presiding council member.
Stange proposed opening up an agenda item to public comment, but only after council members concluded their deliberations.
Public comment would be fine, Duncan noted, but not the extended exchanges between the public and council members.
“It looks like you’re hiding something if you don’t want people to get up here and speak,” Samek said before walking out of the meeting.
As long as the public could comment on agenda items, Ballantyne said, she was fine with placing some restrictions on interaction.
But it’s not feasible to expect residents to approach council members when the agenda is usually posted only a day or so in advance of a meeting, she said.
“To say that the public’s going to have time to contact council members and express opinions in that short of a window of time is ridiculous,” she said. “You still need to be able to have a forum that somebody can comment on an agenda item at the meeting.”
The resolution establishing the guidelines for public input was tabled until the June 21 meeting.