An effort to make permanent City Council rules that limit the citizen comment portion of City Council meetings by writing them into the City code fell flat during the Council’s Rules Committee meeting on Sept. 7.
The proposed ordinance, brought forth by Corporation Counsel Grant Farrar, was rejected by the Committee after a withering critique led by Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, and joined by Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward.
Mr. Farrar said that the “codification” of Council rules was designed to bring “clarity, consistency and transparency [to] civil discourse” at Council meetings. The ordinance would put custom and practice into law, he said. With 30 preliminary “whereas” clauses that explain the legal basis for and need for the ordinance, the law would make it technically illegal to allow any citizen more than three minutes to speak. “I am stuck on why we need an ordinance,” said Ald. Grover. “Why do we need to codify our rules?”
Mr. Farrar said that the legislative record, including a record of Council’s debate in preparing and passing the ordinance as well as the 30 “whereas” clauses, would be helpful should the City be sued by a citizen commenter. At a recent City Council meeting, Padma Rao, through her attorney, said her civil rights may have been violated by certain limitations placed on her public comments.
Ald. Grover said that while Evanston may have its share of “prickly, annoying” citizens looking to share their opinions, “I’ve heard the same from this Council podium.” Council should reflect on its own conduct, and the way they treat citizens, before looking to limit citizen participation, she said.
“It is unfortunate that there is a perceived need to codify civil behavior,” said Ald. Wilson. In his two years on Council, he said, he had not seen “any dramatic displays of severely inappropriate behavior.”
Both Alds. Grover and Wilson said that the proposed ordinance would not give Council the flexibility it wanted. “I see a lot of ‘shalls,’ and it does not provide us with a lot of flexibility,” said Ald. Wilson. The ordinance might end up getting Council in trouble for failing to adhere to all the ‘shalls.’”
Ald. Grover said that at times Council might require more than 45 minutes of comment time. “I see a list of things we don’t want,” she added, rather than a description of the input the City seeks.
Ald. Melissa Wynn, 3rd Ward, agreed with Ald. Wilson, saying the ordinance appeared “stern.” Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, said he thought Council should not make its rules law.
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said staff would scrap the current version but return at a future meeting with a slimmed-down citizen-comment ordinance.