Atlanta Council Refers Comment Limits Back to Committee for Second Time
(APN) ATLANTA — At the Monday, October 21, 2019 Full Council Meeting, the Atlanta City Council for the second time voted to send a proposal back to committee that would further limit the “public comment” time of former elected officials and current elected officials from the State or other governments to two minutes.
Link to 19-0-1541:
Unlike the last vote to refer back to the Committee on Council, which was nearly racially divided, this time the Council voted unanimously to send the measure back to Committee.
The Council went into a closed-door discussion or Executive Session to discuss the proposal by Councilwoman Jennifer Ide (District 6).
The Georgia Open Meetings Act permits the Council to go into Executive Session for a limited number of reasons, including pending litigation. Councilmembers said in Committee on Council that they were planning to discuss the public comment issue in Executive Session.
The pending litigation aspect of the proposal is that it was sparked by a threat by Jerry Meyer-Jackson, Jr., a frequent public commenter at Atlanta City Council, who said the Council is unfairly giving more speaking time to current and former elected officials, than to him and other members of the public.
APN has interviewed two constitutional scholars, Gerry Weber and Prof. Tanya Washington; and reviewed several cases, including two cited by the Law Department, to form the opinion that the City’s current rules for current and former elected officials are constitutional.
Currently, former elected officials initially get six minutes to speak, and may receive two time donations from members of the public, to speak for a total of ten minutes.
Current elected officials currently get ten minutes to speak.
Members of the public initially receive two minutes to speak, and may receive four time donations from members of the public, to speak for a total of ten minutes.
As previously reported by Atlanta Progressive News, Councilwoman Ide introduced the proposed ordinance as a first read Committee paper at the September 16, 2019 Committee on Council Meeting.
The Committee on Council passed the ordinance at the October 07, 2019, but the Full Council sent it back to committee in a divided vote.
Undeterred, the Committee passed the ordinance a second time on October 21, but the Council sent it back to committee a second time.
“What are you all doing?” former State Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), who would be impacted by the ordinance, told the Council.
“With all the issues facing the City, why are y’all spending one hour, one limit, or one second, on limiting the speech of former elected officials, current elected officials, or anyone else?” Fort said.
“Y’all up here talking about Sen. Fort hurt my feelings, we’re gonna keep him from speaking the way he want to speak. It is scandalous at best,” Fort said.
“And I hope you would kill this bill,” Fort said.
The ordinance will appear on the agenda of the November 04, 2019 Committee on Council Meeting, to be held in Committee Room 1 at Atlanta City Hall, at 11:15 a.m.
The ordinance is the latest in the Council’s ongoing effort to undermine participatory democracy at its meetings.
This is already the second ordinance by the current Council to limit comment for current and former elected officials, who used to have no limit; and this Council has also slashed and burned both public comment delegation time and the time allowed for Council Proclamations honoring Atlantans.
Senior Attorney Amber A. Robinson of the City’s Law Department recommended that the Council adopt the ordinance.
She authored a legal memo that has been withheld from the public under the guise of attorney-client privilege.
APN made a Georgia Open Records Act request on October 23, 2019, for the legal memo. Ide admitted the record exists, but refused to provide a copy to APN.
APN sent an email to Councilmembers on October 24, requesting the memo be made public, and none have responded.
The Law Department’s legal justifications have changed and shifted over the last several weeks and are not supported by the cases they have cited.
First, Robinson only said the words “First Amendment and Equal Protection.” But they have cited no cases about Equal Protection, and have apparently abandoned that argument.
Then, at the October 07 Committee Meeting, Robinson cited Reed v. Town of Gilbert, a U.S. Supreme Court case. However, the case is inapplicable: it is about signs in the right of way, not public comment; and it is about a content-based restriction, and the Council’s rules are not content-based.
At the October 21 Committee Meeting, Robinson cited Citizens United v. FEC. However, this case is also inapplicable: it is about corporate monetary donations to independent political action committees, not public comment; and it is about a complete ban on speech, and no one in Atlanta is banned from making public comment.
Only Councilwoman Natalyn Archibong (District 5), one of three attorneys on the Council, has shown any interest in questioning the Law Department’s arguments.
Ide and Amir Farokhi (District 2) have both accepted the Law Department’s advice.
Farokhi admitted, though, at the October 2018 Council Retreat that he won’t be satisfied until all speakers are limited to two minutes.
“I sat through the Committee on Council, and the Legal Department gave their legal explanation… and I’ve never seen such torturous thinking. They gave all kinds of reasons why they thought it was a good thing to do… They even quoted, much to my surprise, quoted Citizens United… It was torturous thinking,” Fort said.
“The legal department said, quote ‘not on point.’ They could not find a case that’s on point. I know what that means, it ain’t got nothing to do with this,” Fort said.
“I hope you kill this so we don’t have to sit through this, Council Meeting after Council Meeting. And if you fail to do that, then I call on our Mayor to veto this legislation,” former State Rep. Douglas Dean (D-Atlanta) said.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2019)