Evanston City Council Further Restricts Public Comment

Evanston Public Comment City Council
Update: Council will vote Monday, February 11, 2019 to prohibit ceding time in public comment   (O1) Resolution 12-R-19, Amending City Council Rules and Organization of the City Council Section 6 “Citizen Participation” The Rules Committee recommends that the City Council adopt Resolution 12-R-19, amending City Council Rule 6, “Citizen Participation,” to state that ceding time is not permitted.

Members of the public will no longer be allowed to cede their comment time to other speakers and may see citizen comment time shrink by more than half.

At Tuesday’s Rules Committee meeting, Evanston’s City Council approved amending Council rules to bar residents from yielding time to other speakers. The practice has become more common as individual speaking times became constrained to as few as 30 seconds to accommodate all speakers within the 45-minute period for citizen comment. (Go to Ceding)

Those speakers may soon have to fit into just 20 minutes, as Council is also considering reducing the public comment period for meetings of the Council’s standing committees, including the Rules Committee. Individual comments may be capped at two minutes, from the three minutes currently allowed. Action for both restrictions is scheduled for the Council’s April Rules meeting. (Go to Limits)

The new (and prospective) constraints follow resident complaints to the Illinois Attorney General’s office that the City violated the Open Meetings Act by unlawfully restricting citizens’ right to speak at meetings. (Go to Complaint)

Ald. Fiske cited the Attorney General’s investigation as having prompted consideration of the prospective restraints, leading some commentators to view the measures as retaliatory given they exclusively targeted the public’s speech. Critics also suggested the protracted meetings were a result of the Council’s failures to respond to public concerns, and to adhere to the rules limiting aldermanic speech. (Go to Restrictions)

At the meeting, council members stated their objectives as mitigating prolonged meetings, deterioration of debate and the public’s monopolization and other misuse of their comment period.

Ceding Time

The amendment banning ceding of time was approved unanimously 7-0 (Alds Fleming and Rainey were absent). Residents will still be allowed to read statements on others’ behalf. 

Ald. Wynne noted the public’s ceding time had become more common practice, and that previously it had been very rare and was done as a courtesy. Ald. Wilson stated his fear that ceding time allows even moderately organized groups to round up speakers and monopolize the speaking time.

City Clerk Reid contended that ceding time within the three minute limit had made council meetings more efficient and organized. He referenced a meeting in which commenters were limited to 30 seconds, with one group ceding time to a single representative. “One member read the statement and we just moved on,” Reid said.

The only other voice of dissent was Ald. Braithwaite. “I’m wondering if we’re asking for a bigger problem by passing something like this.” He said he couldn’t think of one time when ceding time had been a real issue. “I figure when the topics are hot we’re always going to have more residents and my only concern is if passing this creates more of a headache than we’re trying to solve.”

When asked about rules in other cities, Corporation Council Michelle Masoncup stated “The only thing I could find is commentary from other communities that indicate that that it’s against public policy to have other speakers given different time and allowing for ceding of time, the discussion I find in Oakland and in various communities. But I can’t find it in actual rules.”

Oakland City Council’s Rules for Procedure (No. 6) allow residents to cede time for agenda items, allowing speakers up to five additional minutes, or more at the presiding officer’s discretion. In fact, the City encourages groups supporting or opposing issues to select a single spokesperson, and generally ensures individual commenters have at least a minute to address the council.

Most city councils permit ceding time, if they have rules regarding it all. The handful of cities found that disallow it ensure residents receive at least three minutes to speak, and most afford exceptions to groups and residents who provide advance notice. For example, Tacoma, which allows individuals three minutes to speak, provides up to five minutes for residents who request extensions in advance. Cities like Corvallis, Wash, encourage residents to also submit their comments in writing, particularly if they run out of speaking time, and the comments are then published in the meeting minutes. Other cities publish comments in the agenda packets to ensure councils consider them ahead of agenda items.

“To move the agenda along, some councils limit the length of time any one citizen may speak from three to five minutes, and permit this to be extended only by a two-thirds vote of the council.” Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC)

New Time Limits Proposed

In response to an Attorney General investigation regarding allegations the Council unlawfully restricted public comment at its Dec. 3, 2018 Rules Committee meeting, the alderpersons also discussed reducing the 45-minute period for public comment to 20 minutes, and individuals maximums to two minutes. Residents currently have a maximum of three minutes each, though the time has been reduced to as little as 30 seconds depending on the number of speakers. 

During the Dec. 3 meeting under review, Ald. Fiske limited speaking times to one minute. Fifteen speakers had signed up to comment. At Tuesday’s meeting, Corporation Council incorrectly stated Council Rules did not address the issue. “When we had to answer the Attorney General, we found that the rules are silent on this topic,” Masoncup said. Current Council Rules provide speakers three minutes to speak, and only authorizes the limit be reduced if more than 15 speakers sign up to speak. 

“The maximum time limit for each speaker is a single three minute time limit applied to any and all topics the speaker addresses. The maximum time period for citizen participation is forty-five minutes. If there are more than 15 speakers, the Mayor will allocate time among the speakers to ensure that citizen comment does not exceed forty-five (45) minutes.”
Rules and Organization of the City Council of the City of Evanston

The complaint to the Attorney General also referenced the discussion surrounding Council’s consideration of Ethics Board findings, which involving two council members. It noted attorneys for alderpersons received notification of the agenda item and were allowed extended speaking times outside of public comment. The non-city parties were not notified prior to the meeting and were only provided additional time to speak upon appeals to the Council. State and federal due process laws require parties involved in a case be notified and receive equal opportunity to be heard.

Ald. Fiske noted the dilemma of constrained time for committee members to deliberate when faced with so many residents signed up to comment. After aldermanic-discussion Mayor opened the issue to the members of the public present.  

Resident Ray Friedman proposed the issue could be solved, at least in part, if Council engaged with the public’s concerns. “What’s more important than people speaking is us getting responded to,” Friedman said. “If you can figure out a way that we can get some kind of responses and answers to our comments…it would cut out most of your aggravation and the citizens aggravation.”

Friedman referenced commenters who attend meetings every week with the same issues. “Answer some of [the] questions, some of [the] comments, move on be done with it,” Friedman suggested. He noted that if the Council engaged with residents during deliberations and asked questions, they would also then have the benefit of input from those within the community.

Resident Betty Ester seconded Friedman’s comments, and added that if issues brought by the public couldn’t be incorporated in that night’s meeting discussion, or if they required more in-depth analysis, Council should educate residents on when they can come back to get their answers.

Clerk Reid responded to the concerns by stating the clerk’s office could serve as an ombudsman to work with City staff and ensure residents’ questions are answered, should the council be able to provide those resources.

Friedman also told Council that strictly reduced speaking limits with so few commenters felt insulting. “If there’s 50 people or 80 people to speak you have to limit the time, I understand,” Friedman said. “But if there’s one person to speak, come on. You mean to tell me that I only have three minutes to speak when there’s 45 minutes allowed?” Friedman said extending the time to four, five or six minutes to avoid cutting off residents would be more respectful to the public.

Opportunity for Public Presentations

Alds Fiske, Wynne and Reveille spoke in favor of enacting a rule as an alternative to public comment, allowing the residents to organize and present in meetings outside of citizen comment, assuming such requests were made in advance.

Resident Dan Coyne asked how the process would work for those interested. Ald. Wilson responded that the process would only be applicable to standing committees of the Council (the Rules Committee, Planning & Development, Human Services and Administration & Public Works), and would likely be at the discretion of the committee chair, and on a case-by-case basis. Ald. Wynne suggested the opportunity might also be further limited to who would be a “natural consensus group” to the issue.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz proposed that he and Corporation Counsel Masoncup draft language around the items discussed for presentation at the Committee’s next meeting in April.

Breaches by Council

While council’s discussion centered on the import of speaking limits, members did not address the increasing frequency in which council members exceed their own time restrictions.

DEBATE 12.1 No Alderman shall speak for longer than five (5) minutes on the same subject except by consent of a majority of the Council. Council consent shall be assumed in the absence of objections by any Alderman or the Mayor. 

No Alderman shall speak twice on the same subject until all Aldermen who wish to speak have had an opportunity to be heard at least once.

Rules and Organization of the City Council of the City of Evanston

Council members’ are additionally restricted to 10-minute intervals per topic, cannot speak a second time until all other members have had the opportunity to speak to the question, and are not permitted to transfer time or yield the floor to allow another member to speak on his or her time.

A few days later, and the Dec. 10 meeting in which Ald. Fiske constrained residents’ time, she was notified she had exceeded her 10-minute maximum. Upon requesting permission from the council to continue, she was informed that would be in breach of governing rules. Ald. Wilson motioned to allow her to continue, seconded by Ald. Braithwaite, and Ald. Fiske proceeded for an additional six minutes. She again violated the rules by speaking a second time on the same topic prior to the public hearing from her the other members of council.