Citizens Defeat Public Comment Limits at Atlanta Council Committees


(APN) ATLANTA — Citizen activists defeated a proposal to limit public comment time at all Committee Meetings of the Atlanta City Council yesterday, after the Committee on Council voted six to one to file the ordinance, and the Full Council voted twice against approving it.

Activists including Ben Howard, Brother Anthony Muhammad, and Ron Shakir, along with APN’s News Editor–the present writer–had spoken out for weeks against the legislation.  

Currently, each Committee Chair sets their own rules for public comment at each of the seven Committees of the Atlanta City Council.  With the exception of Community Development/Human Resources Cmte, which Joyce Sheperd (District 12) has chaired since 2010, no other Committee has historically had a fixed time limit on public comment.

The legislation, as amended, would have allowed each citizen to speak three minutes per legislative action item, plus another five minutes at the end of each meeting at each Council Committee.  

Sheperd, Ivory Lee Young (District 3), Cleta Winslow (District 4), Alex Wan (District 6), Howard Shook (District 7), Aaron Watson (Post 2-at-large), and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large) had co-sponsored the legislation, for a total of seven Councilmembers.  

Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11) also supported the legislation, making eight, leading some to believe that the legislation might pass.

However, Councilwoman Winslow–who had been opposed to similar legislation in 2010–withdrew her support for the legislation yesterday after hearing remarks from the public and other Councilmembers.

While the proposal could have potentially provided quite a bit of time to some citizens who might wish to speak on several legislative action items during one meeting, most citizens in reality speak to only one item at any meeting.  Thus, most citizens would have been limited to speaking three or five minutes.

In reality, only about five citizens regularly attend and make public comments at the meetings at all.

When the new Council took office at the beginning of 2010, a group of Councilmembers pushed for multi-Committee public comment time restrictions almost right away.

At the February 2010 Council Retreat, the Council took a secret vote over whether the Committee on Council should draft legislation to limit public comment, but the proposal failed seven to eight.

It was that secret vote that prompted APN’s Editor to file a lawsuit, Cardinale v. City of Atlanta, in May 2010 which later went before the Supreme Court of Georgia, who ruled in February 2012 that the minutes of agency meetings must include the names of those voting nay or abstaining, even in the case of a non-roll call vote [such as the one taken at the Retreat].

The City Council of Atlanta later amended the minutes of the meeting, and it was revealed who the seven yeas and the eight nays were.

There was no further discussion of such legislation until just recently in January 2013, when Council President Ceasar Mitchell decided that establishing such time limits would be part of his legacy as Council President, presumably as part of building an eventual platform to run for Mayor of Atlanta.

“We recently spoke about working to bring consistency and simplicity to the briefings and meetings of the Atlanta City Council,” Mitchell wrote in an email to Cmte Chairs dated Tuesday, January 08, 2013, entitled “Consistency for Meetings and Briefings,” obtained by Atlanta Progressive News through an open records request.

“I have summarized our discussion and would like recommend an approach under which the Council will conduct business during 2013.  Please give me your feedback by the end of business Wednesday so we can start the year in a consistent fashion,” Mitchell wrote.

Mitchell proposed in the outline that all Committee Briefings would be open to the public.  As previously reported by APN, the Briefings have indeed since been opened to the public.

Mitchell went on to propose the new public comment policy.  “Public comment will be consistent for all committee meetings.  For each legislative action item, public comment will be 3 minutes per person…”

APN also made an Open Records Act request for the responses Mitchell received from that email.  Shockingly, even Yolanda Adrean (District 8) had reported, through her aide, Katie Howard, that she supported all of his proposals, apparently including the public comment limits.  With Adrean’s support that would have made at least nine votes in favor.

Mitchell told APN that he considered the public comment limits as part of a “give and take” deal that also included the opening of the Committee Briefings, as if it is reasonable for citizens to exchange public speaking time for access to Committee Briefings.  

Mitchell said some Council Chairs did not want to open the Briefings, but they wanted to limit public comment.  Other Council Chairs wanted to open the Briefings, but did not want to limit public comment.

In any event, since early January, all of the Briefings have been open to the public and they are unlikely to close again.  However, the public comment legislation has failed.

Mitchell stood before the Committee on Council when the legislation was first considered on
Monday, February 04, 2013, urging that the legislation be passed and not be held, because, he asserted, it had been fully discussed [by the Chairs, not any discussion that included the public].

However, the legislation was held at the Feburary 04 meeting.  Councilwoman Felicia Moore (District 9) requested the legislation be forwarded to the Neighborhood Planning Units for review.

There was not much response from the NPUs, although according to two members of NPU-R, NPU-R voted to oppose the legislation.

In addition, NPU-B also opposed the legislation, according to a letter by Chairperson Andrea Bennett, which took great concern with a provision that would have also prevented citizens from making comments related to any land use change at Committee Meetings.

The Council intensely debated the legislation.

“I am fiercely opposed to this legislation.  I think it’s ill-timed, ill-conceived, and I think it’s the wrong direction to go,” Councilman Bond said during Cmte.

“It is our job as elected officials to hear from the people who employ us, who are the citizens of the City of Atlanta,” Bond said.  “I personally believe it is not robbery to hear from the public, even when they are critical of you, even when they’ve been pointed and said pointed things about your behavior, even when they say things you may not personally like.”

“If I hire someone to cut my grass, and I tell them how to do it, and I give them instructions how do it, I don’t expect the person that I employ to say that don’t want to hear what I’ve got to say,” Bond said.

“I’m not gonna support this because I like it as it is, and it leaves it to the discretion of the Chair,” Moore said.  “And I think–no I don’t think, I know–that this takes away that flexibility, and I think this does this Council more harm than good by taking away that flexibility,” Moore said.

“I know in Cmtes I have held, there are times I would allow a public speaker pretty much unlimited time to speak, but then there are other times I would say to a person from the public, because of the agenda or the nature of what we’re dealing with, I need you to give it to me in three minutes or two minutes or whatever,” Moore said.

“I think that as Cmte Chairs, that’s one of the things that you have to be able to do is control, and command some sort of control and movement of the items on your agenda, and if people can’t do that, maybe they’re not suited to be Chairs, maybe they should say, ‘I don’t have the ability to run the meetings in that manner,’” Moore said.

Sheperd defended herself, saying she felt singled out for something that had in fact been proposed by a “cadre” of Councilmembers.

“I have no problems with this.  I’m very comfortable with this.  I’m not shamed by this.  I’m okay with this.  And I say let’s move forward,” Sheperd said.

“I too was one of the signers on this.  And I know that this came up a couple of years ago at our Board [sic] Retreat.  And I know at that time that I was not in favor of time limits.  And I’m relistening to everything,” Winslow said, adding she could see both sides.

“I know that here at City Council we have always allowed the public a little bit more freedom, and sometimes that’s been to our detriment,” Winslow said, laughing, “but we have and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

After an intense debate at Committee on Council and Full Council over the legislation, it was defeated, first in a vote of six to eight.

Six voted in favor: Bottoms, Martin, Sheperd, Shook, Wan, and Willis.  

Eight opposed: Carla Smith (District 1), Kwanza Hall (District 2), Young, Winslow, Natalyn Archibong (District 5), Adrean, Moore, and Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large).  Aaron Watson (Post 1-at-large) was absent.

However, Martin was confused about the nature of the vote, and had meant to vote no.  Thus, the Council voted to reconsider its vote.

In the second vote, the measure was again defeated, nine to four, with Martin correcting his vote from yea to nay, and Willis not voting

Only four voted in favor: Bottoms, Sheperd, Shook, and Wan.

After the votes, Mitchell told Councilmembers that he would be drafting his own legislation.

“If we’re gonna have consistency, if the Chairs are going to do what they want to do, I’m going to do what I want to do,” Mitchell was heard saying publicly.

Sheperd later introduced the legislation as a personal paper to allow the Council President flexibility to extend public comment time at Full Council Meetings.  The legislation was referred to Committee on Council.