City votes to change public comment rules


Published: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at 4:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 at 4:24 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously recently to change its rules regarding general public comment, although Mayor Ed Braddy promised to revisit the issue in October to discuss whether the new process is working well.

The changes, which were proposed by the mayor, add another time slot for general public comment that will start shortly after the board's regular Thursday meetings begin at 1 p.m. and run for half an hour.

The public will get another opportunity for comment when the City Commission reconvenes at 5:30 p.m. for its evening session just after the ceremonial proclamations conclude. However, public comment would end either at 6:30 p.m. or after people collectively have had at least half an hour to speak (whichever comes later).

Then the public get one last chance for comment at the end of the commission meeting if time allows.

The commission's prior rules regarding public comment gave each speaker a five-minute time limit.

Under those rules, the evening public comment period often ran past 8 p.m. as speaker after speaker came forward to offer their input on a variety of issues.

Since the new rules establish a time limit for the comment period as a whole, each member of the public might only have two minutes or less to speak on days when there's a crowd of people wishing to talk.

In addition to the general comment periods, the public also has the opportunity to speak to the commission regarding each of the individual items on the agenda as the board addresses them.

During the evening meeting recently, Braddy said he doesn't want members of the public to feel that they're being singled out. These rule changes have more to do with how he sees his role as the presiding officer of this commission and how these meetings are conducted, Braddy said.

Braddy also pointed out that the City Commission can choose to waive the rules if they were to have, for example, one or two extra people who wished to speak at the first public comment opportunity of the day.

Commissioner Craig Carter said if commissioners did pass this rule change, they should look at changing it back if it doesn't work the way they intended, and Commissioner Lauren Poe agreed they could revisit the issue if they find out this isn't working better.

Public comment is done a little differently by various local governments, Poe pointed out.

"There's no right way to do it, there's no wrong way to do it — as long as you're doing it," Poe said.

Poe also said he would defer to Braddy's discretion in wanting to try things differently if he feels this process will help him be as effective as possible in managing meetings.

Debbie and Ernesto Martinez, who are familiar faces during public comment at both Gainesville City Commission and Alachua County Commission meetings, both spoke to the board about the rule change.

"You need not look any further than today's meeting to identify the most common reason for City Commission meetings running late," Debbie Martinez said.

During the afternoon meeting earlier in the day, members of the public collectively spoke for around 15 minutes in addressing all the agenda items that were discussed, she said.

"As a result of the failure of commissioners to manage their own time, the commission ran out of time to discuss three significant items scheduled to be heard this afternoon," she said.

That's what causes meetings to run late, Martinez argued, not the public comment. She suggested the commission give the new rules a try for five meetings before approving the resolution.

Ernesto Martinez told the commission the issue of public comment has always been near and dear to his heart.

"The problem is we do not have to be told when and how to talk, what to say, what not to say," he said. "I'm not suggesting you allow profanity or personal attacks. I'm just saying you should let citizens be adult human beings and hear them out thoroughly."

After hearing from residents offering their views on this change to public comment, Braddy said he'd like to schedule the issue for reconsideration on Oct. 2. If things aren't going well with the rule change, he gave his word he would be the first to call for its repeal.

Morgan Watkins is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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