Atlanta Council Warns of Wider Comment Restrictions

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(APN) ATLANTA — Atlanta activists are forming an emergency coalition to respond to recent restrictions on public comment time at the Community Development/Human Resources Committee of the City Council of Atlanta.

As previously noted by Atlanta Progressive News, Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd (District 12), Chairwoman of CD/HR, announced the new restriction to five minutes per person, whereas prior to that there had not been restrictions at committees.

Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) opposes the restrictions in CD/HR and is planning to raise a point of order asking the Committee to vote on the restrictions at an upcoming CD/HR Meeting on Tuesday, March 09, 2010, at 12:30pm.

Atlanta activist Ben Howard, Anita Beaty of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, and Dianne Mathiowetz of the International Action Center Atlanta are among those who are opposing the changes. Atlantans opposed to the proposed restrictions are asked to attend the meeting on March 09 to make public comment.

Meanwhile, Council Member Felicia Moore (District 9) and Council President Ceasar Mitchell told Atlanta Progressive News that some Council Members have asked for a discussion regarding Council-wide rules that would likely restrict public comment in all Council Committees.

Moore, who chairs the Committee on Council, has established addressing the “issue of public comment” as part of the priorities of the Committee on Council for this year.

According to a copy of the Committee on Council video from February 01, 2010, Moore and the Committee did not officially include setting guidelines for public comment as part of the Committee’s goals for 2010.

However, she and the Committee agreed it would be informally discussed at the upcoming Council Member retreat which will be held today and tomorrow, Thursday February 18, 2010, through Friday the 19th, at the Georgia Aquarium.

SENIOR ACTIVIST FEELS TARGETED

Ben Howard, a self-described Senior Advocate, says he feels targeted by the new restrictions and the talk of further restrictions.

Councilwoman Moore recalled calling him out at a recent Committee on Council meeting.

“I did mention to him I wanted to talk to him about it,” Moore told APN in an interview. “I was saying, some of the way he addresses the Council is part of the concern. At a Committee on Council meeting, he came up and said something about Council Members again looking at public comment.”

“I’m just straight up with people,” Moore said. “I said, you’re a part of the concern, why people want to revisit it. Because of the way he utilizes public comment.”

Moore had previously told APN some members were getting tired of individuals like Mr. Howard. “When I say getting tired, that there are some people from the public who utilize public comment and may overutilize it to a point Council Members may feel not able to get things done… that they don’t feel it’s helpful to the process, they feel it’s disruptive.”

“Some of the public comment is helpful. Sometimes people can abuse the ability to do that. He does tend to be pretty aggressive sometimes, or he wants to speak on every issue, two or three times during an issue,” Moore said.

“If they’re talking about Committee efficiency, I will be talking about other things people could be doing besides attacking people coming to address them, like coming on time, having a quorum, finding ways of not losing a quorum,” Howard said. “You open up a can of worms you may not want to.”

“They’re trying to make me a scapegoat,” Howard said, adding that he sees discrimination against him because of his age, seeing as sometimes it takes him a few seconds to get his thoughts together or transition from one point to another.

“If their intent is merely to repress freedom of speech, then they’re on course,” Howard said.

When asked if he had heard any Council Members, such as Sheperd, give a reason for wanting to limit public comment in Committees, “No, I haven’t heard anybody really explain, except Felicia say I was the cause of the change,” Howard said.

“When we [members of the public] get through with it, they’re gonna rethink that,” Howard said.

Howard suggested that Moore should have gotten an opinion from the legal department before singling him out.

“I think that what City Council Members ought to do, before they make statements like that, is to have a special conference with the legal department, that I want to make a charge that this particular person is the cause of our problem, and because of the problem we need to make some sweeping changes,” Howard said. “If the legal counsel says it’s ok, then the city is en guard.”

“It seems to me there’s all kinds of laws people could invoke if they’re being singled out for major upheavel in the city,” Howard said.

“But Felicia is strong and Sheperd is strong; with them leading the charge, they’ll probably get a couple of them [other Members] to carry the charge,” Howard said.

One source told APN that Councilwoman Cleta Winslow (District 4) is in support of the 5 minute limit at CD/HR, where she serves as a Committee Member.

The opinions of other members at CD/HR, including Kwanza Hall (District 2), Ivory Lee Young (District 3), and Alex Wan (District 6) is not immediately known, although Young has not set restrictions at Public Safety Committee, which he chairs, and has been typically supportive of, and attentive to, public comment.

COUNCILMAN BOND OPPOSES ANY NEW RESTRICTIONS

Bond, who is on CD/HR, told APN he opposes the new public comment restrictions at CD/HR and that he doubts any new Council-wide rules would be proposed coming out of the upcoming Council retreat.

“No one’s gonna want to go on record voting for it,” Bond said.

“When I was on Council the first time [in the 1990’s], people could say anything. People accepted it, understood that was people’s rights,” Bond said.

“I just think the public ought not be restricted, particularly at the Committee level. If you’re gonna restrict at Full Council [to two minutes] and we’re gonna push legislation to Committee for work and reexamination, that ought to be place where people can hash out concerns,” Bond said.

“Not everybody’s concern’s gonna be confined to five minutes,” Bond said.

“Atlanta does more than other counties, but that’s a great thing, we ought to ensure that and continue that,” Bond said.

“We’re the public servants. If anybody should be made to listen, it’s us,” Bond said.

“I don’t think our meetings are overly long. I think our meetings are too brief for issues we’re discussing and the effects they’re gonna have on people,” Bond said.

“You never really know what good someone from the public can add to the discussion if you don’t hear from them,” Bond said.

“One of the biggest differences between now and 1993 to 2001 is, there are a lot less people participating in the process. Today was the Council meeting, there wasn’t a lot of people. Once we went through the proclamations, the chamber virtually emptied out,” Bond said.

“When I was on there before, there always seemed to be some issue bringing tons of people there every week or every other week,” Bond noted.

COMMITTEE CHAIRS CURRENTLY HAVE DISCRETION

Currently, Committee Chairs have discretion over how to deal with public comment at their committees. So far Sheperd appears to be the only Chairperson who has set restrictions.

“Right now, that’s where I would like to leave it: the Committee chairs can decide,” Moore said. “If you come to Committee on Council, I’ll let you talk.”

Council President Mitchell told APN his preference was also to leave it up to Chair discretion.

“I tend to agree with Felicia,” Mitchell said. “I’ve always favored the ability of Committee Chairs to use their discretion to exercise their prerogative as Committee Chairs, whether that’s allowing public comment or allowing reasonable limitations, or any way they manage meetings.”

“If it’s thirty or forty people, I won’t let everyone talk as long as they want to. You kind of gauge based on number of people and the issue. I like the flexibility of that instead of a hard rule. That’s me, but the Council has to make a decision,” Moore said.

Moore also noted that the way it is currently practiced, the Committee Chair has discretion to set public comment rules, unless the Committee objects and overrules.

“I like it the way it is right now. The Committee Chairs can run each meeing and decide the rules of engagement per day. She may have said everyone has five minutes. She may say that at one Committee meeting. At the next Committee meeting there may be issues that dictate a different response,” Moore said.

“Or our discussion could come to a point when we come to hard and fast rules that every Committee has to go by no matter what the issue is and have some time limits that don’t stay suitable for a future issues,” Moore said.

“I personally don’t care for limits. I prefer for flexibility of the Committee Chair,” Moore said.

Moore said she would not comment on Sheperd’s new rule at CD/HR because she did not know the full details of the rule. She warned that the alternative to Sheperd’s rule at CD/HR could be restrictions at every meeting.

“Life isn’t fair,” Moore added.

Ironically, Moore opposed similar restrictions at CD/HR last Session when Jim Maddox was Chair and Moore had legislation before the Committee regarding public housing demolitions. As previously reported by APN, former Councilman Maddox announced the changes at the last minute.

Council Members Mitchell and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large) voiced objections to the limitations in CD/HR last Session, and the Committee voted to overrule Maddox.

However, she did not seem as concerned this time, as she doesn’t have the public housing resolution pending before the committee.

MITCHELL RAN ON PLATFORM OF PUBLIC INPUT

When Mitchell was running for Council President, he promised in previous interviews with APN that he would be a champion of public input.

He told APN he has not been quick to cut off speakers after their two minutes expires at Full Council, and that he has not asked audience members not to applaud because he has not seen it as disruptive.

“First and foremost I firmly believe in and embrace the notion of public input and quality public input,” Mitchell said.

“The question becomes, what sort of reasonable environment can we create for the public to provide quality input and quality comment, and reasonable input and comment,” Mitchell said.

As previously noted by APN, Mitchell has suggested videotaping individuals who come to Full Council with public comments longer than two minutes. It is unclear where the videos would be available or if Council Members would ever watch them.

Mitchell acknowledged there are some Committee Meetings where the majority of Members get up and leave before or during public comment, but he called it an exception. “Not that the exception is acceptable.”

Moore said a quorum is not required for public comment.

“I think… beyond there being a Council rule, every Council Member should govern him or herself accordingly. Because staying or leaving Council or Committee Meetings during public input really is a matter of the relationship between that particular Council Member and the public that elected him or her. I think that’s where Council Members should proceed with caution with that,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell said he was interested in finding out how Atlanta compares to other jurisdictions involving public comment. “I don’t think this is a race to the bottom. We’re not trying to be the worst,” Mitchell said.

“As long as we remain reasonable and create a balance, that’s one reason I’m indulging Council Member Sheperd’s desire to do that: to see how it works,” Mitchell said.

“You’ve got what is called a balance of interests. The balance of interests is ensuring we have reasonable access on part of the public to comment on affairs of the City. Balance that with the need to actually discuss as a Committee and actually address, resolve, and move forward with those issues in context of the Committee meeting,” Mitchell said.

Councilwoman Sheperd did not return a phone call to her office seeking comment.

(END/2010)

About the author:

Matthew Cardinale is the News Editor for The Atlanta Progressive News and is reachable at matthew@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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