Council Rejects Multi-Committee Speech Limits in Secret Vote (UPDATE 1)

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(APN) ATLANTA — The City Council of Atlanta voted 8-7 to keep the existing rules in place for public comment at Committee meetings at City Council, on February 19, 2010, at the City Council retreat at the Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

However, the Clerk, Rhonda Dauphin Johnson, did not record the vote because she said it was not an official vote of Council but an unofficial vote.

As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the current practice is that Committee chairs have discretion over whether to set time limits at Committee meetings, unless the Committee itself objects and overrules the chair.

However, Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd (District 12) began this Session by setting a five minute time limit at the Community Development and Human Resources (CD/HR) Committee and then championed setting Council-wide legislation that would limit speaking time in all committees.

No other committees currently have a time limit, while presentations at Full Council are limited to two minutes.

Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9), Chairwoman of the Committee on Council, established discussing the issue of public speaking limits as one of the priorities of the Committee, for the Council to discuss at the Retreat.

According to a copy of the minutes of the Retreat obtained by Atlanta Progressive News:

“During a working lunch, Council members discussed public comment at Council committee meetings. Committee on Council (COC) Chair Felicia Moore polled the members asking if they wanted to amend the current governing Code Section 2-136 entitled Remarks from Public, to set uniform time limits/ rules for public comment at committee meetings,” the minutes stated.

“After an extensive discussion it was determined that the membership was not in supporting of amending the existing law. Currently, public comment time limits are set (or not) at the discretion of the Committee chair,” the minutes said.

“According to Robert’s Rules of Order, which the Council and its Committees operate under, a Chair’s decision may be overruled by a required vote of the membership,” the minutes said.

“Time did not allow for discussion of additional proposed COC related items. Chairperson Moore noted that those discussions would be held at a place date and time to be announced,” the minutes said.

“They spent all that time trying to limit public comment, they couldn’t take care of their own business,” Ben Howard, a senior advocate and member of NPU-R, told Atlanta Progressive News.

Moore confirmed to APN that the Council had voted 8-7 and said that she did not consider it an official vote because there was no legislation pending. In her view, it was simply the Council voting on whether the Committee on Council should draft legislation for the Council to then vote on.

The Retreat was an Open Meeting, Johnson and Moore said. Johnson said it was advertised as a public meeting on the bulletin board at City Hall but that it was not advertised online.

She said that if a member of the public had attended that portion of the meeting they could have witnessed the discussion and the vote, but that she did not record the vote.

It appears though that the Council used the Retreat as a mechanism to discuss, outside of the public scrutiny of normal Council meetings, an issue so controversial that they did not want their votes to be on record. And the secret vote may have been illegal, APN has learned.

GEORGIA OPEN MEETINGS LAW REQUIRES RECORDED VOTES ON ALL MOTIONS AND “OTHER PROPOSALS”

Georgia’s Open Meetings law requires that the votes on all motions and other proposals be recorded.

“A summary of the subjects acted on and those present at a meeting of any agency shall be written and made available to the public for inspection,” the law states.

“Said minutes shall, as a minimum, include the names of the members present at the meeting, a description of each motion or other proposal made, and a record of all votes,” the law states. The law thus is specific in requiring that votes be recorded not only for official motions, but also “other proposals.”

Whether the City Council of Atlanta violated Georgia’s Open Meetings Act appears to hinge, therefore, on whether Councilwoman Moore’s so-called “poll” counts as an “other proposal.”

“That was their proposal,” Howard said. “Their proposal was to limit public comment.”

In addition to recording the vote, the Act requires that the minutes state how each member voted in the case of a roll-call vote. “In all other cases it shall be presumed that the action taken was approved by each person in attendance unless the minutes reflect the name of the persons voting against the proposal or abstaining,” the law states.

In this instance, the vote was taken by Members raising their hands for or against the proposal, so it was not a roll-call vote. Therefore, if seven members disagreed with the majority, then their votes should have been recorded.

Georgia’s Open Meetings law also requires that Open Meetings held at locations other than the regular meeting location be advertised in advance in the legal organ for the agency. It is unclear whether the advertisement was made.

In any event, Howard said he did not think the meeting was advertised well enough. “One little sheet of paper down at City Hall isn’t sufficient,” Howard said.

“State law covers whatever action they take, whether it be in the form of a motion or an idea, all of this needs to be open and available to the public. And it needs to be recorded as to how the elected officials vote via by electronic vote, raising of hands, voice votes, or straw poll,” Howard said.

“Any time they want to tamper with public comment, they need to come clear and do it out in the open,” Howard said.

“Whether or not they did it then [recorded the vote], we need to know now [how Members voted]. That process should have been recorded and the public needs to know where the legislators stand,” Howard said. “Intentional or not, the process that they used was flawed in that they did not record the sentiments of the legislators on such a significant matter.”

Councilman Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large) told APN that the discussion was impassioned and heated on both sides. He said that Councilman CT Martin (District 10) was one of the strongest advocates of not placing limits on free speech.

Bond said that Martin recalled the history of public comment restrictions at City Council, in that there used to be no speaking limits at Full Council either. According to Bond, Martin recalled that when the Council voted to approve the two minute time limit at Full Council, the promise made was that in return the public would have unlimited time to speak at Committee meetings.

Councilman Alex Wan (District 6) said that he supported the general concept of setting public speech limits at all Committee meetings because he said he was in support of anything that would improve the efficiency of the meeting, including Members arriving on time and having a quorum. (CLARIFICATION: Wan did not specifically say how he voted; he merely said he was generally in support of the idea.)

COMMITTEE GRANTS APN EDITOR A SIXTH MINUTE AFTER THREE MINUTE DEBATE

Meanwhile, at the CD/HR meeting on March 09, 2010, APN made a presentation on the publication’s research regarding the apparent City and Central Atlanta Progress conspiracy to sabotage the Metro Atlanta Task Force the Homeless.

The present writer asked Councilwoman Sheperd to use her discretion to grant an additional minute, or a sixth minute, for the presentation. The time was requested both because it was needed for the presentation and because it was a way to test whether the Committee would exercise any flexibility should a citizen need additional time to speak.

She reiterated the rule but then asked the Committee whether they wanted to change the speaking time for that instance.

After a three minute debate led by Councilman Wan, Councilman Bond made a motion to grant the additional time. The Committee voted 4-1 to grant the additional time, with Wan voting no and Sheperd not voting.

Those supporting the flexibility to speak an additional minute were Kwanza Hall (District 2), Ivory Young (District 3), Cleta Winslow (District 4), and Bond.

A video of the exchange is posted below and on Youtube.

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