Public comments: How much talk is too much?
Officials believe there are more people interested in local government than ever before. These citizens treasure their ability to comment and take exception to being shut out.
Seattle Times staff reporter
What the law says
The state Open Public Meetings Act may not guarantee citizens all the rights they may assume they have. It does not require cities to allow citizens to speak at meetings, except during public hearings. Cities can limit public comment time in hearings. If they do allow comment, they can regulate foul language or comments that have no relation to city business. But whether a council can prohibit verbal attacks against city officials is uncertain. A city may adopt a policy to prohibit personal attacks such as insults if they lead to disruption of the meeting, but cannot prohibit the speech if that means suppressing a particular viewpoint.
— Tim Ford, former ombudsman for the state attorney general
Longtime Renton rabble-rouser and newly minted attorney Inez Petersen walked to the podium in the Renton City Council Chambers Monday. She wore a hat and silver jewelry and spoke in a soft voice as if she were giving cookies to a wayward waif, not about to wage weekly warfare.
Petersen, 69, cautioned city officials about a proposed nuisance-property ordinance. If the city targets low-income duplex owners in the Highlands for property liens and not the developer who places port-a-potties on a sidewalk, kills off the neighbors’ trees and cordons off a sidewalk indefinitely, there are constitutional issues, she said.
“And,” as she said during a previous council appearance, “I would dearly love’’ to take on the case.
The city of Renton’s pain-in-the-butt has spoken, motivated by a sincere belief that city officials are “working on every front to reduce the citizens’ opportunity to fight City Hall.”
Voter turnout may lag. School bonds may fail. But when it comes to tinkering with opportunities to publicly address their elected officials or get information about government, citizens in the Northwest and around the nation take exception to being shut out, Petersen among them.
She joined a number of Renton residents in protesting a plan that would reduce City Council meetings from four to two a month, cut the public-comment opportunities from two to one per meeting, and hold council-of-the-whole study sessions in a room without videotape so public access would be limited.
Any city has its frequent commenters, and now that most cities videotape their council meetings, officials believe there are more people interested in local government than ever before, thanks to the technology that makes it possible to view meetings on TV and online. Citizens no longer have to rely on the local media or go to a council meeting to know what’s going on.
Sometimes that means citizens use public-comment time to try to stump for a political candidate, sell a product or, as Petersen did, promote a blog.
As she stood before the council, she noted that citizens watching on TV might want to know how to find her blog (“dot info, not dot com,’’ she advised potential visitors) and what it included. The blog just happens to target Mayor Denis Law, the driving force behind a move to reduce council meetings and public-comment time because, as he explained in an email to City Council President Don Persson , “a small handful of regular visitors,’’ Petersen included, “continually come up during the second comment period.” They are getting a “second bite at the apple,’’ he said.
A number of citizens consider Law an example of cronyism and an obstruction to openness, said City Councilmember Marcie Palmer. And they were especially incensed at Law’s decision to hold a private meeting with business owners, developers and two of his council allies, Armondo Pavone and Persson, excluding all others on the council. It was a decision City Councilman Greg Taylor criticized as lacking in government transparency.
Law, however, argued that meeting with downtown “stakeholders’’ is his job and the city has no need to improve its transparency. And, he pointed out, the private meeting is not illegal under the state Open Public Meetings Act.
As a reflection of the political climate, citizens in Renton show up regularly at meetings, whether it’s the council retreat or a regular council hearing.
“They’ve appointed themselves to be watchdogs,’’ Palmer said.
“Stop being mean”
While public comments — and often the conflict that comes with them — may not always be welcome, it’s a “natural part of the democratic decision-making process,’’ the Municipal Research Council, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to effective local government, advises city officials. And citizens everywhere become angry when they think their views are unheard.
Several weeks ago, citizens in Lubbock, Texas, went to the City Council meeting dressed as “Duck Dynasty” characters, claiming they had been censored just like the TV show’s star Phil Robertson, who is often in trouble for inappropriate remarks. The citizens protested the council’s decision not to televise public comments. In the past six months, Costa Mesa, Calif., and Ann Arbor, Mich., residents were also upset about lack of public access.
Every city, or county, has its controversies that make life difficult for elected officials.
Recently, King County Councilmember Larry Phillips warned citizens in the audience to not raise their voices beyond a conversational tone, to keep comments to one minute, and to stay on agenda topics after several people raised issues about council salaries and made disparaging remarks. Appearing before the Seattle City Council, the same individuals called a city council member a Nazi and an obscene name.
When a state legislator came to the Mercer Island City Council to discuss possible Interstate 90 tolls, one resident became so upset that officials turned off the microphone when he wouldn’t quit speaking during public comment time, said Katie Knight, Mercer Island city attorney.
About six months ago, the city began enforcing rules of conduct for public comment — limiting speaking time to three minutes and insisting that citizens stay on a topic on the agenda and not defame anyone, she said.
In the past, “some of the attacks were pointed and vicious,’’ Knight said. “This isn’t the place to be doing that.’’
On the night SeaTac Mayor Mia Gregerson was sworn in, a citizen asked for her resignation because she held elected jobs as both the city’s mayor and as a state representative for the 33rd District.
“It’s the tone and character assassination people have used,’’ Gregerson said. “It’s hurtful and not progressive when people are telling the council members to fire someone. We just want them to stop being mean.’’
In 2012, the SeaTac City Council was divided over the issue of reducing public comments from three to two minutes. City Councilmember Pam Fernald , who was not on the council then, stood outside City Hall holding a sign to remind officials that the “people insist on remaining informed’’ and involved. The time limit, initially supported by most of the council, was quashed. She was pleased with the result.
“My general feeling is the City Council is as close as we can get to the people,’’ she said. “They count on us; they look to us.”
Time before the council isn’t the only controversy where public access to government is concerned.
Kirkland and Bothell city councils are among the relatively few that hold their three-person committee meetings in private and do so legally because no testimony is taken, no decisions are made and there are not enough members to have a quorum.
“We just had a council retreat ... where this was discussed,’’ said Kirkland City Councilmember Toby Nixon. “Some council members want to open it to the public” — Nixon among them.
In the end, the council members decided to keep the meetings closed. Their reasoning, he said, was that they liked being able to privately hash out ideas, letting them take shape before they appear in the public or media.
Kirkland has two public-comment sessions in regular City Council meetings, he said. Televising meetings has increased public engagement, he believes.
“We’ve had people who had been watching the council meeting at home and see something they didn’t like, hop in their car and come down to testify in the closing session,’’ he said. “Or we’ve had people send us an email” as the meeting is in progress.
“It’s a bad idea to not give people the opportunity to comment, and I think it’s a bad idea to give people only the opportunity to comment at the end of the meeting,’’ he said.
In Port Townsend, public comment is so welcome the city is purchasing new software that will allow citizens to comment from home during public hearings. And a few years ago, Newcastle added a second comment period to allow people to weigh in on what took place during the meeting, said City Manager Rob Wyman.
Auburn City Councilmember John Holman says possible unpleasantness and conflict are not reasons to do away with public comment.
“I’m an advocate for public process,’’ Holman said. “We do get our odd duck from time to time who wants to come in and pontificate.’’
Having sessions televised seems to bring them out, he believes, and has not discouraged “the wackiness factor.’’ But he credits the public with having the ability to judge.
Says Holman, “We all need to give each other a little slack from time to time.’’
Nancy Bartley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8522