The Palm Coast City Council will expand its public comment segments at workshops even if it risks lengthening often-epic sessions. The council at a workshop today agreed to the expansion, soon to be codified. The approach will mirror public comment segments at regular business meetings.
Council members cited the importance of public comments–and the extent to which such comments can educate members and sway decision-making. Nick Klufas, the senior member of the council(he’s in his seventh year), cautioned that the council “could potentially get gunked up via this process.”
Currently, the council discusses numerous items in workshops, with limited public comment, only for those items to end up on the “consent” portion of the agenda when it’s time to vote at a meeting. Consent items are grouped together and voted on wholesale. The public
Today’s workshop took on all council policies and procedures in a presentation led by City Attorney Neysa Borkert. Her presentation was straight forward, with explanations of such procedures as the mayor’s and council members’ roles, the flow of the meeting, the way council members are recognized to speak, the making and amending of motions, the order of the agenda, the responsibilities of the city clerk and city manager, both of whom sit on the dais, the role of the attorney, who also sits on the dais, and so on.
But one of the main reasons for today’s workshop was to discuss public comment segments in general, and more specifically at workshops. The council has two types of meetings, alternating between them from week to week. At “business meetings,” it discusses and votes on items. By then, the council will have workshopped all those items. The discussions are much more rigorous at workshops. But there are no votes in workshops.
Currently for business meetings, there’s a 30-minute public comment period at the beginning of the meeting and another 30-minute segment at the end, for topics not on the agenda. Then each agenda item has its own, unlimited public comment period.
At workshops, there’s only a public comment segment at the beginning and at the end of the session, with no public comment allowed on individual topics. Theoretically, the public is required to limit its comments to items on the agenda. But the mayor has not enforced that rule.
Some members of the public (one such voice was at today’s meeting, Celia Pugliese) were asking for opening public comments following each item, as at business meetings.
“I would be in favor with keeping public comment at workshops focused on the agenda items of that workshop,” Mayor David Alfin said, going against his own custom. Other council members disagreed.
“From a legal standpoint, workshop items are not required to have public comment on each individual item,” Borkert said. The reason: that item will have its own public comment period at the regular business meeting–and at both ends of the workshop. “The second reason is probably because workshops are [just] that: they’re workshops, and in the interest of efficiency and trying to get through an item and be properly briefed and discuss that item, it makes it go along quicker if you’re not stopping for public comment on each individual item.”
Though the council seemed divided on the issue at first, it gradually coalesced around Council member Theresa Pontieri’s push to broaden the comment periods. “Workshops are really beneficial for us because it is a learning point for council members,” she said, supporting adding public comment segments after each item. Pontieri said as the rule stands now, by the time the workshopped items reach the business meeting, decisions are often all but made.
Council member Ed Danko favored Pontieri’s approach, “because what we do at a workshop is we reach a consensus, and then those items go to the consent agenda, and the public sees us just voting on a consent agenda. Most times there’s been no discussion of those items, unless the public is really focused on it, or one of us wants to pull an item out of that agenda. So I kind of think we need to give some thought to this.”
Many consent agenda items are routine and uncontroversial, such as purchase orders for utility top gates, piping for sewer construction, a contract with a design firm to come up with logos for city uniforms, and so on. At times, as with the recently approved cultural arts grants or a new fee schedule for parks and recreation, the items are not routine and are detailed at the workshop but end up on the consent agenda at the business meeting anyway.
“We’re going to be the same at business meetings as we are at workshops,” Alfin said.
Council members also discussed public comment periods at regular business meetings. Klufas noted the rare occasions when there might be “agenda fatigue.” Public comment periods can occasionally stretch almost to the length of James Cameron movies. But when 30-minute segments exceed their limit, it’s not been an issue: there’s never been a time when the mayor has called an end to public comments.
There’s not much appetite on the board to change that, but Klufas and Pontieri are not entirely opposed to some limits in some rare circumstances, and Heighter wants to hear from the public about it. It’s up to the mayor to extend and shorten periods, or, for example, to impose a two- or one-minute limit on speakers. Specifying the three-minute limit per speaker is the only point of clarity the mayor will stress more often.
“While public comment is very important, obviously it’s one of the most important if not the most important thing in our government,” Pontieri said, “so is making decisions with with fresh minds and not wanting to overlook anything. So I think that with our mayor as a presiding officer, it almost has to be a game time decision.” Pontieri would favor at times setting a harder 30-minute limit if the chamber is overflowing with speakers. “we’re not taking away their ability to make public comment. We’re just saying we have very important business to get through. And so we’re going to limit at the beginning to 30 minutes but you have your opportunity still at the end.”
“We’ve never done this, just so you know,” Alfin said. “So no precedent has been set nor are we anticipating to start doing that.” Danko, whose position on free speech is somewhere between Hugo Black and Howard Stern, favored no limits. But Alfin wants to limit proclamations to a maximum of five, and move the proclamation and presentation segment ahead of the first public comment. There was no disagreement about that, though people waiting to speak their piece will likely grumble at having to sit through civic celebrations and commendations.
The policies and procedures document will be edited according to today’s workshop, with proposed changes (in underlines and strike-through showing the changes) before they are approved.
The workshop’s liveliest segment, however, was an hour-long discussion on council members’ conduct, their freedom to express themselves, what council bounds there may or may not be on that, and other related matters. (See: “A ‘Code of Conduct’ for Palm Coast City Council Members, Proposed by Mayor, Gets Pushback.”)
“Everything in the presentation before you is something that already exists in your rules of procedure or in Robert’s Rules, or in the charter or in the code of ordinances,” Borkert had said in the preface to her presentation. “So what I’m presenting to you today, these are rules that already exist. But what the city council meeting policies and procedures does is lays out how the meeting should go. And what it also says is if something’s not covered in the city council, policies and procedures, then that’ll be handled by the Robert’s Rules of Order,” the 12th edition.