Post updated at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 9:
Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday could not come to a decision on how to change general public comment procedures and, therefore, opted to make no change.
Mayor Lisa Larsen had asked her fellow commissioners on Aug. 1 whether they would like to again discuss making changes to public comment procedures. She 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.
Commissioners heard from about two dozen people about the proposed changes, most in opposition.
Many activists with No SB 180 in Lawrence, the group who recently pushed for the commission to pass a safe haven ordinance to protect transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people, said they felt that the proposed changes were in response to their campaign’s several hours of public comment over the span of meetings in June and July. But they said they felt their push was necessary to ensure the city took action.
Many commenters raised concerns about accessibility. If public comment was moved to the “end” of meetings, the time could change every meeting and people might not know when to show up, some said. In addition, city buses stop running before meetings are usually over.
Some said the proposed changes were a threat to democracy.
Kevin Elliott-Snow said he would start a recall petition against Larsen if the commission tried to silence the voices of the people.
Bonnie Lowe and Hugh Carter, leaders with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, spoke in favor of changes to the public comment format. They said they trusted that the commission was not trying to silence people, and the tone and vitriol toward the commission had no place in public meetings.
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. 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.
Some people in written and live public comment mentioned last year’s budget process, when the city was considering cutting funding for Prairie Park Nature Center. However, the budget was a regular agenda item, and it was not during general public comment that dozens of people spoke about the issue. The commission did not propose any changes that would restrict comments on agenda items.
Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said he didn’t support going to public comment once a month. He said the one issue he wanted to talk about was moving public comment to the end of the agenda.
He said several people who were there for the public comment discussion spoke about other agenda items that evening because they were there, and commissioners wouldn’t have heard from them about those other items otherwise. However, “I think we have lost some public participation on agenda items in exchange for open agenda items, and that’s the balance I think we’re trying to find,” Finkeldei said. Vice Mayor Bart Littlejohn said he agreed.
Commissioner Courtney Shipley said the commission has been hearing from members of the public for more than a year about how long it takes to get to the regular agenda items, and she thought it was fair to have a discussion about it. Shipley said people have told her they were “physically afraid to be here because of public comment or public commenters.”
Commissioner Amber Sellers said she wasn’t interested in revisiting this discussion right now and she didn’t think it was a good use of time to direct staff to bring something back to them to modify general public comment. She said if the people feel like their democracy is being threatened, this might be a good time for the commission to have a conversation with the community about discourse and what that means.
Larsen agreed with Shipley that the commission has been hearing from people for more than a year.
“I’ve been getting a lot of emails and phone calls, even have met with community members about the concerns of what is happening with our general public comment to the extent that I’ve had many folks tell me they won’t come to the public meetings anymore because of their concerns with how the tone in the language that is being used,” Larsen said.
Littlejohn said he liked some community members’ suggestion that the commission have general public comment at the beginning of the meeting for a set time frame, then move on to the regular agenda and continue general public comment at the end of the meeting if there were still people wanting to speak. Finkeldei said he would be inclined to agree with that idea.
Commissioners discussed how that would be handled: If the commission devoted a set time of 30 minutes at the beginning of each meeting to general public comment, but more than 10 people who signed up to speak, the commission would have to decide how to determine who speaks, perhaps through a lottery system.
Ultimately, Sellers and Shipley both said they would table the item. Finkeldei said it was clear there was no consensus.
The choice to take no action was met with applause from those in attendance.