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City looks to tighten policy on public comments


Ward 2 councilman Joseph Mickens

Ward 2 councilman Joseph Mickens



Nathan Gregory



This is what the Columbus city council is considering implementing in regards to members of the public speaking at council meetings: 


If you live in the city and want to address the council you first have to fill out a form with your name, address, telephone number, email address and explain what you want to speak about. Then you have to talk with the city's chief operations officer, who will determine if your complaint can be resolved without addressing the council. If not, you will get five minutes to speak to your councilmen. Also, you can only do so a maximum of three times a year. 


A committee formed to develop the new policy met Monday. 


It included councilmen Joseph Mickens, Bill Gavin and Kabir Karriem along with chief operations officer David Armstrong and city attorney Jeff Turnage, with Columbus Mayor Robert Smith also present. The draft they proposed, outlined above, will be considered for approval during tonight's 5 p.m. meeting at the Columbus Municipal Complex.  


One of the stipulations that the new policy implements is that the topic the person wants to discuss must be related to official government issues and can't be used to promote non-governmental events. 


Earlier this year, Gavin requested the council allow city resident Berry Hinds extra time beyond his five-minute limit to finish comments he was making. The request was granted, but Smith said if there was to be no set time limit for Hinds, there shouldn't be one for other residents who wished to speak. Since then, speakers have not had to comply to any time limit.  


Hinds, who was at Monday's committee meeting, noted that one of the new requirements is that residents must turn the form in by the Wednesday before the meeting they want to attend. That would mean they wouldn't yet know what's on the agenda for the meeting, he said. 


"I don't know what's on the agenda until Friday, Saturday or Sunday," Hinds said. "I may want to make a comment about something that's on the agenda." 


Smith said he also generally asks city department heads to submit agenda items by the Wednesday before.  


"Velma (Woodard, Smith's administrative assistant) normally tries to complete (the agenda) by Thursday afternoon since we have a four-day work week," Smith said. "There's always going to be something that is either going to be deleted or added. If it doesn't work, we can always make some revisions." 


Two residents came up during Monday's discussion of the policy --Tommy Ross and Carl Lee. Both have come before the council multiple times this year. Ross has referenced complaints regarding Columbus Police Department and Lee has discussed his concerns with city government in general.  


Mickens noted that if a policy is to be in place, it must apply to all residents and not targeted toward certain individuals. 


"From a fairness standpoint, we just can't pinpoint Mr. Ross or Mr. Lee," Mickens said. "It has to be for everybody." 


Gavin said developing the new policy and requiring people to fill out a form before they can speak at meetings is not designed to silence the general public, but to ensure decorum is maintained during meetings.  


"It's a shame you're having to do this just for certain circumstances," Gavin said. "I do think having them fill out the application will add some validity to the person that is asking to come before the city council." 


Smith said having the policy in place prevents last-second adjustments involving people who call just before a meeting starts to say they want to be on the citizens input agenda. It also gives the city a chance to work out concerns residents might have before meetings. 


"They're going to have to go through this process," Smith said. "Even after they fill out the application... you're going to have to talk to a department head, then talk to David (Armstrong) if you don't get satisfaction and then come through me. The average citizen is probably going to say, 'Hey, I don't want to go through all this process.'  


Karriem noted that the new procedure would not take away power from councilmen to allow citizens to speak under the general comments from mayor and council portion of the meeting. 


"If they want to recognize someone to speak before the mayor and council, we still have the authority to let them speak if there's something they want to say," Karriem said. "It gives everybody the opportunity to come before us, and if they come before us three times, they still have a councilman. They still have a mayor. They still have a chief operations officer they can come to or they can get somebody to speak for them. 


"I've been up on the council for five years," Karriem added. "It gets kind of redundant when you're trying to take care of city business and someone's talking about the police chief and something that happened back in 1970-whatever. That just takes the air out of the whole meeting and you've got to regroup from that."


Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.



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