Atlanta Council Silences the Public During National Pandemic
(APN) ATLANTA — In response to the national COVID-19 pandemic, the Atlanta City Council has shifted its meetings to an online/telephonic format, but has unnecessarily infringed upon the right of members of the public to be heard.
The City’s new public comment practice only allows members of the public to email their public comments to the City Council, which are then acknowledged and attached to “the record” (presumably, the minutes).
Meanwhile, the Council is still meeting without hearing from the public, even though technology exists to allow the public to participate telephonically, and even though the Municipal Clerk could read the comments aloud.
To be sure, meeting electronically is appropriate given the national pandemic; however, there is no reason to silence the public but for the Council’s lack of desire to hear from the public in the first place.
Atlanta residents and taxpayers, including APN’s News Editor, frequently make public comments in the Full Council and Committee Meetings of the Atlanta City Council.
The City Charter and Code of Ordinances require public comment. Because of this, at least half of the Council has to literally sit there and listen to the public, increasing the likelihood that a member of the public might make a meaningful difference in the democratic process by influencing one or more Councilmembers.
Comments attached to a record are easily ignored by the Council, advocates say, particularly because such a practice is premised upon the unreasonable assumption that Councilmembers read the materials attached to their agendas.
On March 25, 2020, senior advocate Ben Howard complained in his public comments, emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org , emphasizing that the general public is also being deprived of their ability to hear the comments.
“PUBLIC COMMENT NOT AVAILABLE TO PUBLIC… So that I will not lose my right to have my voice heard during Public Comment, I hereby grant permission for anyone from Committee Staff to act as my surrogate for the additional purpose of READING this email into the Record,” Howard wrote.
“Citizen Participation is diminished when the Public cannot hear Public Comments. What is the Plan to correct this?”
Howard said he has not received a reply to this email, nor has he received a consistent reply acknowledging his emailed comments.
On Tuesday, March 31, 2020, Atlanta Progressive News sent an email to Council President Felicia A. Moore; Committee on Council Chairman J.P. Matzigkeit (District 8); and all members of Council, expressing concerns regarding the City’s violation of the Charter and Code of Ordinances.
First, the Charter of the City of Atlanta provides that “The council and its committees shall provide a reasonable opportunity for the public to be heard during its meetings.” Charter and Related Laws of the City of Atlanta, Subpart A, Article II, Chapter III, Section 2-303(d) “Meetings.”
The word “heard” has a natural, plain meeting that cannot be satisfied by the attachment of an email to a record.
Second, the code requires that any member of the public who signs up to make public comment at Full Council Meetings of the Atlanta City Council, shall receive two minutes to address the Council. City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances, Part II, Chapter 2, Sec. 2-104 “Remarks from Public.”
There is no way to satisfy the language of 2-104, which specifies two minutes, if no time is elapsing because comments are not being read aloud and there is no way for members of the public to participate.
Third, the Code further provides that any member of the public who signs up to make public comment at any of the Council Committees shall receive at least one minute to speak to each Committee; and that at least one minute shall be offered prior to voting of legislative items. City of Atlanta Code of Ordinances, Part II, Chapter 2, Sec. 2-136 “Remarks from Public.”
The requirement that one minute be offered prior to voting on legislative items was intended to ensure comments were heard prior to voting.
There is no way to satisfy the language or intent of 2-136, which specifies at least one minute of public comment in each Cmte, if no time is elapsing because comments are not being read aloud.
Further, if comments are not being read aloud, they are not being heard by Councilmembers prior to voting on legislative items.
No Councilmember has responded.
On March 31, APN sent a separate email requesting open records including all the public comments received by the Council and any responses thereto; all complaints received regarding the public comment practice during COVID-19 and any responses thereto; and all communications discussing the public comment practice.
Today, the Council provided an initial reply along with a cost estimate, and APN is currently waiting to hear back about how to pay for the records.
(END / Copyright Atlanta Progressive News / 2020)