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VOL. 131 | NO. 44 | Wednesday, March 2, 2016

City Council Comment Limits Raise Questions

By Bill Dries

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Most Memphis City Council members don’t want to stop comments from the public during council sessions. But several do want a better explanation of how the comments work, what their role is and what kind of comments won’t be tolerated.

Memphis City Council members are debating changes in how citizens can comment at council sessions as well as larger questions about representation of citizens.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The council’s rules committee quickly got past the rumor of any kind of ban on public comments at a Monday, Feb. 29, session that drew nine of the 13 council members. No one advocated for eliminating public comments.

Councilwoman Patrice Robinson is proposing a declaration at the start of council meetings that is similar to the one the Shelby County Schools board reads at its sessions. Robinson is a former school board member.

The statement says citizens can comment on school operations and programs but cautions them about using names of personnel or those connected to the school system.

“Speakers will not be permitted to engage in gossip, make defamatory comments or use abusive or vulgar language,” reads the school board policy, and that line often is included in the verbal setting of ground rules at the body’s monthly voting meeting.

The school board sets aside 30 minutes for speakers, regardless of how many there might be. The number of speakers determines how much time each one gets.

The council allows citizens to speak in advance of votes on specific items and to comment on any topic at the end of the session. Several council members refer to the end-of-meeting comments as a “free-for-all.”

Council attorney Allan Wade said very few local legislative bodies allow anybody to speak to the extent the council does.

“They need to speak through you. They need to come through you. They need to bring the process through you because you are the elected representatives,” he told the council members. “It is disjointed – it turns it on its head when the public believes they are representing someone. You are representing everybody. That’s how it works. They elected you to be the representative form of government.”

Wade made the case that some speakers distort the process by getting a lot of people to sign up for two or three minutes of speaking time only to delegate that time to them.

Councilwoman Janis Fullilove said she and others frequently learn about problems through those who speak at the meetings.

“Some people, they also come to speak on things that perhaps we don’t know anything about within our community,” she said. “They bring something to our attention.”

But Wade said the council members can do that through phone calls and individual meetings.

“You can get it done without them even having to come down here,” he said. “We are just not efficient in how we do it. We are not effective in how we handle it.”

Fullilove remained unconvinced.

“Personally, I love hearing people what they have to say,” she said. “Sometimes – kind of nutty. They feel like government is listening to them.”

Councilman Martavius Jones said both the body and the public should remember that a council session “is a public meeting, but not a meeting of the public.”

But councilwoman Jamita Swearengen said the comments, however caustic, are part of being an elected official.

“To take away their right to speak, to me, is disenfranchising the people,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night taking it away from them. We have to realize all of that comes with the territory. Sometimes we will be called names. But I think we do have a system in place to avoid that. That’s the purpose of the chairman and he needs to step up. ... Handle your meeting.”

Councilman Berlin Boyd said the end-of-session comments should have time limits and that public and personal attacks on council members should be gaveled out of order by the chairman.

Council members are to sketch out ideas for new policies on public speaking time to Wade by March 8 for him to draft in written form. They will then discuss the proposals in March 15 committees and determine what goes to the full council for a vote after that.

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