Residents who wish to speak during the Citizen Comment period of a City Council meeting always had to sign up before the meeting. Now they can also indicate if they wish to cede their time to another speaker. Unless Council members agree at the meeting, the public comment period lasts only 45 minutes.
Over the past few years, mayors have variously allowed or not allowed residents to cede their time to other speakers on the same topic, and recently some residents have said the prohibition was selectively enforced.
Mayor Stephen Hagerty brought the matter to the Rules Committee. He said he generally did not allow speakers to cede their time, and he sought the imprimatur of the Rules Committee to continue that practice.
The Mayor asked Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup to interpret the Council rule about Citizen Comment. She said the rule is silent on ceding time but states that no one person may speak for more than three minutes. The rule applies only to City Council meetings; committee meetings – such as Rules, Human Services, Administration and Public Works and Planning and Development – typically allow more time for public comment and are more relaxed in the back-and-forth between committee members and speakers.
Mayor Hagerty said for the most part he has not allowed people to cede time, but he has allowed it a few times. He said there are many different ways for residents to communicate with Council members.
“People confuse ‘not listening’ with disagreement,” Mayor Hagerty said. He suggested setting up a time when people could come to an empty Council Chambers and speak on any topic. Their comments would be then given to Council members.
“There is some value to that,” said Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, “but C-SPAN is members of Congress.”
“Right,” said Mayor Hagerty. “The public is not elected.”
“We are trying to stress many, many times that everything we get is read by us. We all appreciate a well-crafted argument.”
“A hand-written letter is very effective,” said Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward. He said he is against ceding time. He said he was afraid that by allowing residents to cede time to one speaker, Council would be issuing an invitation to “game the system.” A speaker who felt passionately about an agenda item could invite several friends to sign up to speak and then cede their time to their friend, he said.
Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said people who wish to make a presentation at a committee approach the chair. “I would like to see a way to allow that,” she said.
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward said he engages with his constituents through ward and neighborhood meetings and at the grocery store, where they happen upon him. He added he is troubled by people who make heated comments at the beginning of the meeting but leave before the vote. Some have told the RoundTable they watch the meetings live from home or later on cable television or the City’s YouTube video.
Aldermen Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, and Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said they support ceding time.
“I think the question we have to answer is ‘What’s the most efficient use of our 45 minutes [of public comment]?’ I think that ceding time is the most efficient use. I think we can come up with a better and more organized way of doing this. … A prohibition on ceding time sends a bad message.”
After City Clerk Devon Reid reminded Council members that the maximum time any single speaker would have is three minutes, they seemed to rally around that as the best solution.
Residents who wish to cede their time to another speaker will have to be present at the Council meeting and indicate when they sign up that they wish to cede their time. No speaker will have more than three minutes to make a case.
Ald. Wynne brought to the attention of the Rules Committee on Aug. 6 a Wall Street Journal story about how the city of Duluth, Minn., resolved the problem of lack of civility on both sides of the dais.
“This is ‘Minnesota Nice,’” she said, referring to a sometimes-pejorative stereotype of Minnesotans’ disinclination to argue. “Our political discussion has moved to ‘Evanston rancorous.’ … District 65 has changed its climate.”
Duluth and other communities have adopted the nine pillars of “Speak Your Peace,” and Ald. Wynne urged Council members to consider using them as well: Pay attention, listen, be inclusive, don’t gossip, show respect, be agreeable, apologize, give constructive criticism and take responsibility.
Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, said, “The things people say to me – the sarcasm, the profanity, screaming – in front of my children. People say, ‘That’s OK. It’s free speech.’
“I don’t feel that it’s OK to make personal attacks, to use tactics and methods that they know are going to hurt someone’s feelings. … If we can get away from this, we can get back to having civil discussions.”
Ald. Wilson also said that, despite accusations by some, aldermen make considered and deliberate choices. They do not vote from exhaustion or frustration.
While Council members appear to have figured out how they wish constituents to behave and might themselves behave, residents who spoke earlier during the public comment session did not appear to see through the same lens.
Some said residents feel they are not being heard, not because Council votes in ways they do not wish but because no clear answers are fathoming.
Evanston resident Ray Friedman said, “I’m not sure if this is a lack of communication or misunderstanding or just not working together toward a common goal and just being frustrated. … I suggested two months ago that maybe we can have a committee to address and answer public comments. Can this be done?”
Junad Rizki, a frequent critic of City Council and City government, said there is an increasing number of Freedom of Information Act requests coming to the Clerk’s office, because people do not trust what they are hearing from City officials.
Jeff Smith, a long-time Evanston resident, pointed to the history of vigorous – sometimes physical – debate in the U.S. Senate. “It’s the right of Americans to get angry and yell at government … but it’s rarely the place of government to respond in kind.”