Atlanta Council Considers Further Cuts to Public Comment, Targeting Public Officials
(APN) ATLANTA — The City Council of Atlanta is considering legislation to further limit public comments at its meetings, in an ordinance that targets the public speaking time of current and former elected officials.
Committee on Council Chairwoman Jennifer Ide (District 6) revealed the new ordinance, 19-O-1541, as a “first read paper” at the Monday, September 16, 2019 Committee Meeting. As Chairwoman, Ide directs the introduction of committee papers.
The ordinance is scheduled to come up for a possible vote at the Monday, September 30 Committee on Council Meeting, at 11:15 a.m. If it passes Committee, it will come up at the Full Council Meeting later on the same day.
Ide claims the ordinance was prompted by advice from the City Law Department, following a complaint by advocate Jerry Meyer-Jackson, Jr.
Mr. Meyer-Jackson, Jr., complained that he believed the City was violating his First Amendment rights under the Federal Constitution to give more time to current and former elected officials than to him and other citizens.
For years, Mr. Meyer-Jackson, Jr., has made public comment at City Council, in recent years growing a beard that has become part of his “Santa Claus” persona.
“The walk-in is a paper that is an amendment to our public comment rules that is coming from the Law Department… Actually, Mr. Jackson raised an issue a couple weeks ago about the implications of the First Amendment on giving more time to certain people than other people,” Ide said.
“And the Law Department has looked at that and made a suggestion, has recommended that we change our rules on that,” Ide said.
“Essentially what this does is strike the language that gave currently serving elected officials and former elected officials additional time to speak,” Ide said at the Committee Meeting.
“We were advised by the Law Department that that was the appropriate step to take,” Ide said.
Currently, current elected officials from other government bodies have ten minutes to speak; former elected officials have six minutes to speak; and members of the public who have never served in public office have two minutes to speak.
However, with the public comment time donation rules, former elected officials and members of the public can each receive time donations from other speakers in increments of two minutes, up to a total of ten minutes.
Atlanta Progressive News has analyzed this practice under the First Amendment, and under the Fourteenth Amendment (Equal Protection); and does not believe the proposed ordinance is required under either amendment to the Constitution.
APN asked Council President Felicia Moore whether the Law Department had issued a written opinion, and Moore said she did not know. Moore referred APN to Ide, saying that Ide had said she had a conversation with the Law Department.
APN sent an email to Ide’s Office on Tuesday, September 17, requesting a copy of any written opinion issued by the Law Department. None has been provided.
On Thursday, September 19, Lance Orchid, Ide’s Chief of Staff, emailed back to say that he had not yet had the chance to pose the question to Ide.
First Amendment attorney Gerry Weber says he agrees with APN that the current ordinance providing additional time to current and former elected officials is permissible under the First Amendment.
Under the First Amendment, local governments are allowed to place certain “time, place, and manner” restrictions on free speech, but these must serve a significant public interest and must be narrowly tailored to advance those interests.
In this case, there is a significant government interest in providing more time to current and former elected officials because of their nexus to the legislative process, and their historical and institutional knowledge.
“Former and sitting elected officials provide citizens and the Council with historical memory and expertise, and that will be taken away,” former State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) told APN.
To be sure, when a free speech restriction is based on the content of the speech, the courts set a higher standard for the rule to be permissible; however, in this case, the rule is based on who the speaker is, not what the speaker says.
“In the City that has so many problems, for the City Council to prioritize this is a shame. In a City where we’ve got homelessness. In a City where children experience the greatest amount of income immobility than anywhere else in the country. In a City where affordable housing is in crisis, for the City Council to focus on this issue shows how vacuous they are,” Sen. Fort said.
“This whole process is a slap at the Council President. She used to have the discretion. Now they’ve taken all the discretion away from her,” Sen. Fort said.
“It’s unfortunate. I thought this Council was going to be a better Council. They’re more concerned with their hurt feelings. Some of them thought their feelings were hurt when people made public comments,” Fort said.
“This did not become an issue until the Gulch issue came up,” Sen. Fort, who had criticized the 2018 Gulch deal in public comments, said.
“They did not like being called out for standing up for billionaires, and that’s part of it as well. The public and people like me were unrelenting that they were giving corporate welfare for CIM,” Fort said.
If adopted, the ordinance would be the second major attack on members of the public by this current Council; and it would be the second ordinance to target current and former elected officials from other government bodies.
In November 2018, as previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, the Council adopted a round of draconian attacks on the public.
First, the Council cut the maximum possible time for public comment delegations, from sixteen minutes to ten minutes per delegation. Delegations are where one or more members of the public donate their time to one speaker.
At the same, the Council set what are now the current limits on public speaking time for current and former elected officials, who, prior to November 2018, had no limit at all.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2019)