(May 31, 2013) The Ocean City Council will be throwing in the towel on its experiment with having public comments before – instead of following – Monday night sessions, although some officials clearly seem to think that the move is less intended to streamline meetings and more intended to deflect mounting political criticism.
“Sitting here for the last two Monday nights, it’s become apparent to me that this procedure probably isn’t working the way it should be,” said Councilman Joe Mitrecic, who had requested the topic be discussed at this Tuesday’s work session.
“The Monday night before last, I believe the public comments lasted an hour and 38 minutes,” Mitrecic said. “Last Monday, it was two hours and 22 minutes.”
Council members had decided during strategic planning sessions this past winter to hold the public commentary portion of their meetings at the beginning of the session, rather than at the end. This has been applied to both council’s Monday night regular sessions and its Tuesday afternoon work sessions.
The theory expressed at the time was that moving public comments forward would encourage contributors to address specific standing issues prior to the meeting, rather than taking time at the end to pass judgment on everything which had just happened, something that many regular meeting attendees are wont to do.
This appears to have worked well during the Tuesday sessions, when commentators are restricted to addressing specific discussion items on the council’s work agenda.
“Having [commentary] beforehand on Tuesdays, I think, works well,” said Council President Lloyd Martin. “We can hear their opinion before we discuss the issue.”
However, Monday’s meetings are formatted as much more of an open forum. For the past two meetings, heaps of public complaint about cut to the Ocean Bowl Skate Park and the installation of additional paid parking have stretched the meetings’ opening forum out longer than the scheduled meeting itself.
“We tried it … and I don’t think it’s working out quite the way that I foresaw it working out,” Mitrecic said. “We have staff sitting in the audience waiting for us to get through public comment time. We also have people who drove two or three hours for their special events approval.”
“I understand Mr. Wendling’s [Al ‘Pop’ Wendling, a frequent contributor] concern that the people might not wait around to speak,” Mitrecic said. “But if they feel strongly enough about the topic, I think they’ll stick around.”
It is notable, however, that much of the length public commentary portion of the last two Mondays’ meetings consisted of active debate between members of council and their critics, and were not commentary per se.
“The council should not get into a debate with people making public comments,” Mitrecic said. “They should state their opinion and then be able to walk back to their seat unencumbered by questions or issues with the council. If they do have a [factual] question, those questions should be referred to the city manager.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas, however, worried that the council was trying to set a cap on the level of personal criticism they had to endure and asked if speakers still would have the latitude to vent directly at public officials.
“To a point, yes,” Martin said. “But there’s no reason for them to be totally rude to you.”
“Welcome to the U.S., Lloyd,” Pillas retorted. “This is a place where the public are allowed to speak their mind.”
“It’s not easy to sit up here and take it, but that’s what we were elected for,” added Councilman Brent Ashley, who said he opposed the original move of the comments to the beginning of the meetings.
“I just find it curious, because the arguments that you all are making now are the arguments that I made then,” Ashley said. “I just find it strange, after we have all these public comments after the last two meetings that we want to change it back to where it was to begin with.”
The council briefly discussed the possibility of using a timing device with lights or buzzers to enforce a time limit on open commentary.
“I’ve worked in jurisdictions where the City Clerk controls the timing,” said City Manager David Recor. “There was a green, yellow, and red light depending on how long you had spoken.”
“Why don’t we just install a big trap door?” Ashley quipped.