Public can no longer pull most items from Lawrence City Commission consent agenda

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Members of the public can no longer request to pull most items from the Lawrence City Commission’s consent agenda during meetings, commissioners voted Tuesday.

A governing body’s consent agenda generally includes a list of items that are considered routine and are approved in one vote. Some bodies, such as the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission, allow commissioners themselves as well as members of the public to ask that an item be removed from the consent agenda for discussion; the Lawrence school board allows board members and the superintendent to remove items from the consent agenda. 

The change approved Tuesday was on the consent agenda, but Commissioner Brad Finkeldei asked to discuss it.

With the change, “Items listed on the consent agenda where the Governing Body sits in a quasi-judicial capacity may be removed for public discussion by a member of the Governing Body or by a member of the public,” the agenda item states. “These items will be identified on the consent agenda.”

Deputy City Attorney Randy Larkin said the “quasi-judicial” capacity could apply to items where the commissioners are asked to apply city code to facts to determine whether someone’s “rights are being infringed or whether they’re entitled to what it is they’re seeking.” Some zoning decisions, special use permits, revocations of licenses, and appeals of property maintenance codes are examples of items that would be “quasi-judicial,” Larkin said.

Otherwise, only commissioners will be able to pull items for further discussion. Other common items on the consent agenda include accepting minutes from city advisory boards and approving the mayor’s appointments to those boards; city purchases and claims; permits for special events; ordinances such as the safe haven ordinance passed Tuesday; and much more.

Four community members present for the meeting asked the commission not to approve the resolution. Some were upset that the resolution itself was on the consent agenda. Mayor Lisa Larsen at the end of the commission’s July 18 meeting had asked city staff members to “bring back an ordinance to change the rules to the consent agenda,” but there was no further discussion at the time.

After hearing public comment on the issue, Commissioner Courtney Shipley asked Larkin if the commission had a constitutional obligation to allow the public to pull consent agenda items. Larkin said no.

“Most communities do not allow community members to remove items from the consent agenda,” Larkin said. “We do have a certain number of items that impact property rights or liberty rights, and we need to make sure that those are able to be removed by the public for discussion, if that’s so warranted. But otherwise, this is typical practice for the state or the country.”

Larkin said in response to a question from Larsen that members of the public may also ask their commissioners to pull items from the consent agenda.

It has been common in recent years for general public comment and the consent agenda to take up the first hour or more of the commission’s meetings. Finkeldei said he’s heard from people who have wanted to come speak about an item on the commission’s regular agenda, which are the commission’s main business items. He said if people have to wait four hours to give their comments on regular agenda items, they’re not going to want to come back to future meetings. 

Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn said he agreed, and that the change could give the community clearer expectations.

Finkeldei also said the commission can sometimes add many items to its consent agenda and expect community members to pull items if they deem them important.

“The whole purpose of the consent agenda is to control your agenda and so I support that,” Finkeldei said. “… I do think as we move forward with this process, we want to consider more carefully what we put on our regular agenda and what we put on our consent agenda.”

Larsen and Commissioner Courtney Shipley said they had both heard from community members who don’t understand the flow of the meetings or know when they should show up to speak about agenda items. 

Larsen, Littlejohn, Finkeldei and Shipley approved the resolution 4-0. 

Commissioner Amber Sellers said she abstained because she has shown her bias toward “having a sense of parliamentary structure.” She said effective and efficient meetings start with those who are on the dais, and having a democratic process must be shared, understood and recognized with the community, and “I don’t know if this is it.”

“I have way too many emotional feelings about this to give a fair and equitable up or down vote,” Sellers said.

Possible general public comment changes to come

The commission may also consider changes to its general public comment structure. Commissioners hear public comment on agenda items, but they also allow time for general public comment near the beginning of each meeting, when members of the public to come speak about items that are not on the agenda.

This is not the first time in the past year that the topic of changing this procedure has come up, though commissioners previously opted just to require that comments be “germane” to the business of the city.

Commissioners on Tuesday discussed the possibility of three changes. Larsen proposed the commission move its general public comment to the end of meetings; only hold general public comment on the first Tuesday of the month; and designate a specific area in City Hall where the public can record video during meetings.

Larsen asked her fellow commissioners for their thoughts on the proposed changes.

Sellers said she would not support moving general public comment to the end of meetings, but she would consider holding general public comment only on one Tuesday per month as well as designating a space for public recording. Regardless, Sellers said commissioners should first allow city staff members to present options to them so that they can dig into discussion.

“We’re trying to hamstring everyone to say where their position is on something when it’s more broad and more open to just say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about if and when and where we have public comment,’” Sellers said.

Both Finkeldei and Shipley said they would be open to choosing one or the other: moving general public comment to the end of meetings, or only holding it during one meeting per month.

All commissioners agreed they’d be open to designating an area in the building for community members who would like to record video. Shipley cited fire hazards if attendees stand in the doorway, and Larsen said her support of the change stems from complaints.

“I’ve just been receiving comments where the filming is occurring, not that we don’t want it to occur, but just it’d be nice to have just a designated area where anybody who wants to film can be there — out of the way of the general area here,” Larsen said.

The commissioners on Tuesday ultimately agreed to revisit the issue at a later time, which wasn’t specified.

The city commission generally meets on the first three Tuesdays of each month. Agendas are generally posted online around 5 p.m. on Thursdays on the city’s agenda portal. You can sign up to receive new agendas via email once they are published 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.

Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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