Tuesday, January 26, 2010

City Council committees — well, one for now — tinker with public comment rules

Posted By on Tue, Jan 26, 2010 at 11:55 PM

click to enlarge 'Ladies and gentlemen, would you please pass the mic to Mr. Dave Walker!'
  • 'Ladies and gentlemen, would you please pass the mic to Mr. Dave Walker!'

There are very few things more dear to our hearts than the public comment period of Atlanta City Council meetings.

Whether during full Council gatherings or committee meetings, the set period of time when Average Joes and Janes take to the mic and opine can often be breathtaking to watch. It's given us such memorable characters as Dave Walker, Ben Howard and yes, even General Larry "Pants on the Ground" Platt. It's allowed residents and advocates an opportunity to voice concerns about neighborhood issues, government foul-ups, and whatever they want to discuss.

Is it at times mundane? Sure. Do some people abuse the opportunity? Yes, often times to hilarious lengths. (Though not nearly as hilarious as the folks in Santa Cruz.) But it's a vital part of public engagement. And starting today, things on Trinity Street changed just a tad.

At least one Atlanta City Council committee — and from what we've heard, others might follow suit — has modified the rules when it comes to standing before your fellow residents and speaking your mind. At today's Community Development and Human Resources Committee, Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who chairs the committee, said some new rules were taking effect to better manage the gatherings. Attendees who signed up to speak at the start of the meeting would be limited to a total of five minutes at the mic. People who sign up after the meeting begins would have a total of two minutes to speak.

Now, are the new rules a little restrictive? Actually, no. Compared to other local governments, City Hall's public comment policies are actually lenient. Simply show up, sign up, stand up and speak up. Other municipalities and counties require you to sign up to speak well beforehand or shorter limits. In 2008, Clayton County residents raised hell when the school board proposed a separate meeting — separate from its regular business meeting — just for public comment. In Marietta, the school board limits comments to 90 seconds.

"I'm supportive of my chairs exploring new ways to lead meetings without inappropriately impeding pubic input," Council President Ceasar Mitchell says. He says he's examining whether residents who get cut off after the two minutes during full Council meetings, which Mitchell leads, can submit their questions to be posted to the city's Web site. If resources allow, Mitchell says, he'd like to make a videocamera available in an adjoining room where residents can videotape their comments.

The aforementioned Ben Howard told Sheperd and her colleagues to expect some pushback about the rule changes. Infamous rabble-rouser Dave Walker — who frankly deserves a Greatest Speeches DVD — wasn't in attendance during the announcement. We're sure he'll have something to say.

(File photo by Joeff Davis)

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