Atlanta Councilwoman Norwood Seeks New Restrictions on Public Comment
Currently, each Committee gets to set its own time limits, if any; some committees have limits currently; some do not. The matter is under the purview of the respective seven Committee Chairpersons, and limits can be waived by the Chair or a majority of Committee Members.
Norwood’s legislation, 15-O-1281, would set a multi-Committee limit that could not be waived, and would limit comments by members of the public to only two minutes at the beginning of each Committee Meeting, and three minutes at the end, after the votes have taken place.
“She’s rehashing something that ought not to be brought up at this time. The question is, what are we going to do about citizen participation and civic engagement, and the legislation that should be introduced is for the City of Atlanta to have a department of civic engagement, like other cities have,” senior advocate Ben Howard told Atlanta Progressive News.
“It can’t be one size fits all, if a Chair feels their meeting runs efficiently with the public, then they ought to have the right,” to allow unlimited or more extensive public comment, he said.
In addition to restricting the amount of time an Atlanta citizen could speak, the legislation would severely harm the potential of Atlanta citizens to make effective public comments. This is because the first two minutes would come before Committee debate, and thus citizens would be unable to tailor their comments to the issues raised in debate; and because the three minutes would come after the vote, when they would be too late to influence the Cmte vote.
The two minute segment at the beginning of the meeting has other flaws.
“Once you do that two minutes on what we expect to be acted upon, then we’re done even though new papers can be introduced and can be brought up from being held… you’re shut down til the end of the meeting,” Howard said.
The ordinance was introduced at the last regular Full Council Meeting, June 15, 2015, as a personal paper; and was referred to the Committee on Council.
It is at least the second time over the last five years that the Council has considered limiting public comment at all Cmte Meetings.
First, in 2010, the Council voted while on retreat at the Georgia Aquarium not to draft a new multi-Cmte limit, in a vote of seven yeas to eight nays.
When the Council did not record who voted which way, and refused to disclose the information, Atlanta Progressive News’s editor–the present writer–sued the City of Atlanta, eventually winning a Supreme Court of Georgia ruling in 2012 that forced the City to disclose the names of the yeas and nays.
Then, in 2013, the Committee on Council introduced a draft ordinance that would set multi-Cmte public comment limits. That ordinance was even less restrictive than what Norwood has proposed. It did not pass out of Cmte.
APN’s Editor made comments on the 2013 proposal as follows:
Norwood says she promised advocate Steve Carr that she would hold her legislation for at least one cycle, upon his request.
She says that her legislation was motivated by her dealing with “the same three people,” referring to senior advocate Ben Howard, Brother Anthony Muhammad, and Ron Shakir.
In Committees that allow it, these activists have developed a practice of approaching the podium several times during a single meeting, to speak on various agenda items, often raising procedural issues as well as substantive issues of inequality, gentrification, development, affordable housing, and ethics in government.
Norwood said she became concerned at the last Zoning Cmte Meeting, where Muhammad and Shakir spoke on several items.
But Howard says he does not see a problem with citizens being able to address issues as they arise during the meeting.
“Throughout the years, starting with Cary Duncan and Dave Walker, that has been the history. Something pops up in discussion, people would say, would you allow comment on that before the vote? That had been the situation before,” Howard said.
“Popping up if it’s relevant… needs to be accommodated,” Howard said.
Howard believes Councilmembers oppose the extent of citizen participation by Muhammad, Shakir, and himself, because of the substance of what they say.
“I think it’s precisely that, the substance, and the closer we get to election time, the more pushback there’ll be… [because of our] demands for transparency, and demands for audits, and demands for financial reports, and the charter requirements,” Howard said.
“I think it is substance, and it just happens to be there are three people who come down there and raise these substantial issues, so they [we] have to be the target,” Howard said.
Norwood said she has carved out an exception in her legislation for people who only speak before the Council less than once per quarter, that is, once per every thirteen weeks: they would get ten minutes to speak in that instance.
However, there are important issues that come up before the Council more than once per quarter, and the few members of the public who do make public comment more often than that–who haven’t been alienated, disillusioned, or discouraged from participating–might have new and relevant information to offer to the Council in those instances.
Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9), who recently served as Chairwoman of Committee on Council, has opposed multi-Cmte limits in the past, saying she prefers each Cmte to have the flexibility to set their own limits, or to set no limits.
Moore told APN she was not aware of Norwood’s proposed legislation and would not comment until she had read it. However, she said she had no reason to believe her position had changed.
APN’s analysis of the legislation’s chances of passing out of Committee on Council is that it likely will not pass. Natalyn Archibong (District 5), Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large), CT Martin (District 10), and Moore will likely vote no, based on their past voting record on this issue. This would make up a majority of the seven member Cmte.
Norwood said she is not investing emotional energy into this legislation, but thought she would offer her idea to the Council. The legislation is based on how she conducts the Committee on Council Meetings, which she chairs.
Public comments at Full Council are limited to two minutes per person, and because of that, the Committee meetings are supposed to be the place where citizens can offer more extensive input.
The next Committee on Council Meeting is on Monday, July 06, 2015, although Norwood has said her paper will be held for at least two weeks after that.