Lawrence City Commission to consider 30-minute total limit and signups for general public comment, among other changes

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A revised draft of a city ordinance would limit general public comment during Lawrence City Commission meetings to 30 minutes total and require advance signup, and it suggests that comments won’t be livestreamed.

It also adds more specific language regarding decorum and restricts the public’s ability to request that items be removed from the consent agenda.

The proposed changes come after commissioners, following the end of an executive (closed-door) session and before their regular meeting began on Aug. 9, voted unanimously to “Direct staff to return with proposals regarding operations of the City Commission meetings to enable the Commission to be more efficient while complying with both the Kansas Open Meetings Act and the First amendment.”

Currently, Lawrence city commissioners 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. That means people must wait until the agenda item comes up before they may speak about those items. (City staff’s proposed changes would not affect the public’s ability to comment on regular agenda items — so if dozens of people come to talk about the budget, as they did over the summer, everyone would still have a chance to speak.)

• 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, currently, a commissioner or a member of the public may request that a consent agenda item be pulled for discussion.

Commissioners discussed some proposed changes during their meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 13, and came to a consensus on several things that are reflected in a new draft ordinance that they’ll revisit on Tuesday, Sept. 20.

Here are some of the key changes proposed in the draft ordinance:

Time limits

General public comment would be limited to 30 minutes total, with each speaker given three minutes to speak. Those who wish to give general public comment would need to sign up in advance.

A presentation from city staff indicates that general public comment would also be moved to the beginning of the commission’s meetings.

Only commissioners pull from consent agenda

Commissioners usually approve the whole list with one vote and without discussion. However, a member of the commission or a member of the public may pull an item from the consent agenda for discussion and a separate vote. There’s generally not much discussion about consent agenda items, though in recent months, some members of the public have asked to pull items such as meeting minutes for discussion.

Commissioners did not come to a strong consensus about what to do about public comment for consent agenda items during Tuesday’s meeting.

Under the draft resolution, only some consent agenda items would be subject to public discussion, and only commissioners would be able to remove most items from the consent agenda for discussion. Items that require public hearings would be on a separate consent agenda.

Written public comment would still be allowed for all consent items, however, and members of the public could ask commissioners to pull a consent agenda item that way.

For a frame of reference, during the Sept. 13 commission meeting, general public comment and comments on consent agenda items occupied roughly the first hour of the meeting before the commission moved on to its regular agenda. Two regular agenda items — proposed utility rate increases and a possible expansion of utility assistance programs — were deferred to the Sept. 20 agenda because the meeting ran too late.

Decorum and content

The city’s current decorum language for public comment is fairly vague: “Members of the public are encouraged to act with decorum and to address the Governing Body and each other with respect. It shall be the duty of the presiding officer to preserve order and decorum. Any member of the public engaging in disruptive behavior that interferes with the Governing Body’s ability to conduct the business of the City may, after a warning, be subject to removal from the meeting.”

The draft modifies that language to add this sentence: “The following will not be tolerated: uttering fighting words, slander, speeches invasive of the privacy of individuals, unreasonably loud or repetitious speech, and speeches so disruptive of the proceedings that the business of the City is substantially interrupted.”

The draft ordinances adds that general public comment “should be limited to issues and items germane to the business of the Governing Body.” A federal court recently ruled that a school district’s similar policy was reasonable and not in violation of the First Amendment.

Not livestreamed

The draft ordinance says “the City generally will not include, in the live streaming or in any posted copy, General Public Comment.” If general public comment is livestreamed, the city “may redact” it from the recordings of meetings posted online.

Except for particular items that require governing bodies to hold public hearings, public bodies are not required to allow public comment under state law.

See the full draft ordinance below.

The Lawrence City Commission will meet at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20 at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. See the full agenda at this link. Meetings are also livestreamed on the city’s YouTube channel.

The commission accepts public comment in writing — comments must be received by noon the day of the meeting at — and during meetings in person and virtually. Register to join the Zoom 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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