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Ocean City Council agrees on new public comments system for meetings

(Feb. 8, 2013) In discussing last week how to organize and possibly streamline the public comments portion of their meetings, City Council members came to a consensus that were it not for the few, the many might be heard.

The problem with the seeming disorganization of public commentary, it was agreed, was limited in scope but great in magnitude. Of citizens who spoke, 95 percent were constructive; it was the other five percent who were a problem.

“A lot of people don’t come to the meetings and don’t contribute because they don’t’ want to be lumped in with those ‘five percenters’,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight at last Friday’s strategic planning discussion.

As required by law, council has customarily allowed any member of the public to speak freely at the close of regular Monday night sessions, with a five-minute time limit. On Tuesdays, when the council holds its work session for informational discussion and purchasing matters, the rules are less clear. Citizens often request to speak during meetings on specific work items – sometimes this is allowed, sometimes not.

It is also unclear if the five-minute limit carries over for those who speak numerous times, a common occurrence among frequent attendees. Many speakers also present questions that may be answered by city staff, often leaving great confusion as to who can talk to whom, and when, and for how long.

Mayor Rick Meehan estimated that, while 95 percent of the public has a targeted piece of commentary, the other five percent have a tendency to argue for argument’s sake, and have been trained to do so by the relative lack of direction in meetings.

“We’ve conditioned them to want information on every item,” Meehan said.

While encouraging the council to not stifle any public participation, planning consultant Lyle Sumek said he has seen many municipal bodies struggle to keep their meetings on point. The council should be discussing policy as a means, not the factual details of specific ends, he said.

“There comes a point where you’ve gotten below government, into management or even into service delivery … which is not what you’re here to do,” Sumek said. “It needs to be you deliberating, not them interjecting.”

To this end, it was suggested that all meetings – both regular and work sessions – have public comment time at the beginning. Those wishing to speak would sign up beforehand, and be called up in order by the council president. While Monday regular sessions would allow citizens to speak on any topic, Tuesday work sessions would be restricted to input on specific agenda item decisions.

“I think they’ll actually have more input this way,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic. “Rather than already having a motion and a second and knowing what direction we [the council] want to go in before they even get to speak.”

This will ensure that public comments are intended to help council with its decision making, rather than the public seeking information for their own edification.

“It’s not a dialogue, it’s not an interrogation, and it’s not the public’s time to interview city staff,” said City Manager David Recor.

“It’s incumbent upon us to study the issue and respond to those people [who have such questions] before the meeting as well,” said Councilman Dennis Dare.

Council members Brent Ashley and Margaret Pillas were more reluctant to re-structure public commentary, for fear of restricting it.

“I’ve been on the wrong end of a lot of them, but I like the open public comments,” Ashley said. However, he noted that he was definitely in favor of guaranteeing citizens right to speak at work sessions, which seemed to be the consensus within council.

Sumek and Recor also suggested that council implement “consent items” on its agendas, in which purchases, bid openings, and other actions which are not matters of policy can be approved en masse. Council could still always move to strike a specific item from the list if there was a pertinent issue regarding it.

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