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Caps and signups for public comments among staff suggestions to streamline Lawrence City Commission meetings

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Update: This agenda item was bumped to the commission’s Sept. 13 meeting because the Sept. 6 meeting ran past 11 p.m. Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she wanted to be able to have a “good, solid discussion about this, and not at the wee hours of the night.” Other commissioners agreed and moved to adjourn.

Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday will consider some suggestions from staff to make meetings more efficient, including limiting general public comments or taking them out of the meeting livestreams.

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The commission in March 2021 approved a resolution that requires commissioners to vote to extend meetings if they want to start on any agenda items after 11 p.m. Still, meetings can go on for six hours or more, and oftentimes, agenda items still must be postponed until a future meeting. The commission recently asked city staff to return with proposals to help make meetings more efficient, according to a memo in Tuesday’s meeting agenda.

Currently, Lawrence city commissioners accept written public comments up until noon on the days of their meetings. They typically hear from the public during meetings — both in person and via Zoom videoconferencing — in three ways:

• General public comment — Members of the public can discuss things that are not on the meeting agenda. This occurs during time set aside near the beginning of each meeting.
• Regular agenda items — People can share their thoughts about specific items on the agenda as commissioners are considering them.
• Consent agenda items — The consent agenda is a typically lengthy list of items that are considered routine, and commissioners vote to approve all of them at once. However, a commissioner or a member of the public may request that a consent agenda item be pulled for discussion.

All types of comments are limited to three minutes per person, per agenda item.

One suggestion from staff is that the commission could add a disclaimer that general public comments “must be related to items within the governing body’s span of interest and control.” Some members of the public have regularly used three minutes during meetings to discuss things that are well outside of commissioners’ spheres of influence and have nothing to do with running the city.

Staff members also suggested making consent agenda items no longer eligible for public comment.

Other possible measures that staff members included in their presentation regarding general public comment are:

• Requiring advance signups
• Moving it to the beginning or end of the meeting
• Placing a cap on the total amount of time allowed for comments
• Limiting it to one agenda per month with no cap
• Not including it in the meeting video feed

Staff members also compiled some information about public comment procedures from other cities. A few examples:

• Topeka’s public comment is after its regular agenda, and it’s limited to four minutes per person. Topeka requires signups and does not allow comments for political endorsements or campaign purposes.

• The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas limits speakers to two minutes each with a 45-minute cap, and items must relate “specifically and solely” to the unified government’s span of interest and control.

• Wichita, which allows five minutes per person with a 30-minute cap, says no speaker can appear more than once every fourth meeting.

• Overland Park allows three minutes per person with a 30-minute cap on public comment. The city requires signups but may open to unregistered speakers if time allows. It’s limited to the city’s programs and services. The city is considering ending its video feed for general public comment, according to the agenda.

The Douglas County Commission recently stopped including general public comment in the versions of meeting video recordings that are uploaded to YouTube because one video was flagged for COVID-19 misinformation and removed from the website. However, general public comment still occurs toward the beginning of each meeting, with a limit of three minutes per person.

Some have challenged public comment policies for perceived infringement on First Amendment rights. In one example, in August, U.S. District Judge Holly L. Teeter denied a request for a temporary injunction against the Olathe school board. Teeter ruled that a district policy limiting public comments to topics “germane to the business of the Board” was a reasonable and viewpoint-neutral limitation that does not violate the First Amendment, the Kansas News Service reported.

Except for particular items that require governing bodies to hold public hearings — such as the Lawrence City Commission’s recent hearing over its budget for next year — public bodies are not required to allow public comment under state law.

The commission will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. Check out the full agenda at this link.

You can email written public comment to ccagendas@lawrenceks.org until noon the day of the meeting, or sign up to give comment virtually during the meeting at this link.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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