Evanston City Council members are moving to place a specified time limit for public comment time for their  standing committees, responding  to a recent State Attorney General’s ruling that suggested  the 45 minutes allowed at regular Council meetings applied in the absence of any other standards to those committees as well.

At their Rules Committee meeting on April 1, City Council members recommended setting a 20-minute public comment limit for three of their committees – Rules, Human Services and Administration & Public Works.

At those meetings, each speaker would have a maximum of two minutes. Aldermen recommended a longer period of 45 minutes for Planning & Development (P&D), which frequently hears development issues and where potentially large numbers of residents may take part in the discussion.

Speakers at that meeting will also have a two-minute limit.

The Rules Committee recommendations still need to be adopted by the full City Council, where they will go next.

Until now, there had been no specified time for public comment at standing committees, officials maintained.

In his March 26 ruling,  Matt Hartman, an assistant attorney general with the Public Access Bureau of the State Attorney General’s office, found that the Rules Committee of the City Council had violated the Open Meetings Act (OMA) during its Dec. 3 meeting by imposing restrictions on the public right’s to address the Committee, “contrary to its established and recorded rules.”

In the case, Clare Kelly, a speaker at the Dec. 3 Rules Committee meeting, had filed a complaint with the office the next day, charging that the Committee violated the Open Meetings Act when the then- Committee Chair, First Ward Alderman Judy Fiske, allowed each speaker only one minute of public comment, noted Mr. Hartman, reviewing the facts in his opinion.

“In particular, Ms. Kelly asserted that the Committee’s allotment of public comment did not comply with its rules, which provide for three minutes per person during public comment, allocated over a period of 45 minutes,” wrote Mr. Hartman.

In her complaint, Ms. Kelly asserted that Ald. Fiske limited time to one minute per speaker during the public participation period because she was aware of the probable content of speakers’ speech in light of a recent recommendation from the Board of Ethics, said Mr. Hartman, reviewing the facts of the case.

The City, meanwhile, countered that that chair exercised her discretion to limit comment because of a Human Services  Committee meeting scheduled to be held immediately after the Rules Committee. That committee’s start time was delayed by nearly an hour and a half, Mr. Hartman noted.

In ruling in Ms. Kelly’s favor, Mr. Hartman noted that “the Committee has not provided an explanation why the chair’s application of its rules to limit public comment to one minute per speaker was necessary to promote order and decorum at the meeting or to further any significant governmental interest. The rule appears to be intended to provide an opportunity for all members of the public who wish to address the Committee to do so within a public comment period that is not to exceed 45 minutes. The manner in which the Committee applied its rule limited the public comment period to less than 23 minutes. Although public bodies have an interest in conserving time and ensuring that all interested parties have an opportunity to speak, the Committee may not unreasonably restrict public comment to accommodate its meeting schedule, particularly where a need for additional time between meetings may have been foreseeable,”  he said.

At the April 1 Rules Committee meeting, several aldermen referred to the Attorney General’s ruling, in voting in favor of a staff recommendation setting 20 minutes for public comment time for Rules, Administration & Public Works, and Human Services; and 45 minutes for Planning & Development.

Alderman Donald Wilson, 4th Ward, said his reading of the Attorney General’s opinion was, “in the absence of something to the contrary, the interpretation would be  that the Council rules would apply, so it would be 45 minutes per standing committee.”

He noted that if that requirement would be applied to the two standing committee meetings that precede City Council on Monday evenings, that would add up to two and half hours set aside for public comment.

“That’s an awful long  time in one  night  to comment,,” he said. “Given that there is an opportunity at the Council meeting the same night, I think this [the new limit] makes some sense.”

He noted that additional time for citizens to speak at the Planning & Development Committee was allowed, recognizing “more conversations are occurring on those occasions,” when planned developments are discussed.

“I support this, and I think that this makes sense. It’s certainly not an attempt to limit our input,” he stressed. He noted that other communities such as Rockford, for example, allow a maximum of five speakers at three minutes apiece for public comment, “and that’s 15 minutes for a city much more bigger than ours. So I think we’re pretty open to the comment process, but we have to ensure there’s enough time to get the work done and have the conversations while people are here to hear what we’re talking  about.”

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, suggested aldermen might want to allow more time at Planning & Development for issues beyond planned developments, adding map amendments, major zoning variations and subdivisions to the list, “because those are the times when you might get a presentation from the applicants and residents might have quite a bit to say about it as well.”

Aldermen recommended in favor, though, of a 45-minute public comment period at Planning & Development meetings, allowing two minutes per speaker.

Ald. Fiske was among the Council members supporting the new guidelines.

 “I want to remind everyone that the reason we’re doing this is that the A.G. [Attorney General] said that in the absence of rules for standing committees, the Council rules prevail, which means for each standing committee, including P&D, we should be allowing 45 minutes for public comment, and we’ve never followed that. It’s been up to the discretion of the chair for standing committees. So this is a good thing and we need to do that,” she said of the new standards.

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.