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City Council voting on public comments ordinance

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The public comments section of the Apopka City Council meetings allows citizens to have a voice in how their City is run. It also allows the Council to get feedback on the issues that are important to its residents and calculate those into their ultimate decisions. Without public comment, government could be carried out without input from those who will be most affected by them.

Having a robust system in place for communicating what is being done, as well as connecting with future stakeholders in the broader community, can serve as a device to keep government on track. When public concerns are addressed at the outset, and then revisited at every stage, it makes the completion many times more effective once it’s launched. 

Public comments can shape the issue, and move the City Council to take action:

Sometimes, however, groups of public commenters can attempt to make a point, but enter the world of the bizarre:

Other times, public comments can take on a personal nature or simply be a place to vent or scold the Council or an individual council member:

They are, in many ways, a double-edged sword.

Obviously, there has to be rules and limitations to public comments, such as time limits and subject matter. But to what end? How much restriction is too much?

In 2016, Apopka Mayor Joe Kilsheimer attempted to alter public comments by limiting speaking time to three minutes (from its current four minutes) and to limit public comments to 30 minutes per meeting. Neither of those changes found their way into Resolution 2016-16, and public comments have remained essentially the same as they were six years ago.

But on the agenda for the May 4th City Council meeting is Ordinance 2931 - addressing public participation in City Council and other board meetings. And while modest changes were attempted in 2016, these are substantive and with language that threatens arrest to those causing disturbance or interruption of the City Council.

In the agenda packet, the summary of Ordinance 2931 states:

"Rules of decorum for city council meetings have been provided pursuant to Resolution 2016-16. The attached ordinance codifies rules of decorum for city council meetings, bringing the City in line with various other municipalities and counties that have codified the rules of decorum. 

Substantively, Ordinance No. 2931 addresses public participation in city council and other city board meetings. The Ordinance retains the “Public Comment Period,” but regulates the manner in which public comment may occur, limiting the comments to items not on the agenda for that day’s meetings, limiting comments to the council or board in its entirety, thereby disallowing direct comments at individual council or board members, and requires commenters who wish to provide additional media displays (either audio or video) to submit the media to the City Clerk at forty-eight (48) hours prior to the council or board meeting so that the City may review the media files for viruses or other dangers to the city’s computer network." 

The ordinance goes on to add rules to the way the public comments portion of the meeting would be conducted. Among them are:

  • No person shall willfully interrupt or disturb the proceedings or meeting of the city council or any city board. 
  • Only those individuals recognized by the mayor, or applicable presiding officer, are authorized to speak to the council or to a city board.
  • All other speech, remarks, or comments are unauthorized.
  • Unauthorized speech, remarks, comments, stomping of feet, whistles, yells, or similar actions or demonstrations constitute an interruption to public meetings, and are prohibited.
  • All persons attending any city meeting shall render inaudible any cellular telephones, or other mechanical or electronic devices which such meeting is in session.
  • The mayor, or applicable presiding officer, shall preserve strict order and decorum at all meetings.
  • The chief of police, or such member or members of the police department as the chief may designate, shall be sergeant-at-arms at the regular and special meetings of the city council or board.
  • The sergeant-at-arms shall carry out orders and instructions given by the mayor, or applicable presiding officer, or by a majority of the city council or board present for the purpose of maintaining  48 order and decorum at the city council meetings.
  • The city council welcomes and encourages comments from the public. Members of the public shall be given reasonable opportunity to make comments on matters that may warrant action by the City and speak and be heard on items placed on the agenda in accordance with Florida Statutes. In addition, there shall be an opportunity at a meeting for members of the public to comment on items of city business that could come before the city council for action but are not on the agenda at the beginning of a meeting.

The following requirements apply to all speakers:

  • All comments shall be directed to the city council as a whole. Comments shall not be addressed to a single member of the city council or to city staff members.
  • Generally, council members do not ask questions of speakers or respond to questions during public participation. Speakers shall make their comments and request the city council members to consider their comments.
  • Any person who causes an interruption of the meeting shall be warned by the mayor or applicable presiding officer that the conduct is interfering with the order of the meeting and shall be given the opportunity to cease the conduct that constitutes an interruption.
  • If the individual fails to cease the offending conduct and continues interrupting the meeting, the individual shall be removed from the meeting room if the sergeant-at-arms is so directed by the mayor or applicable presiding officer, and such person shall be barred from further audience for the remainder of the meeting.
  • Any person who, at a city council or board meeting, willfully interrupts or disturbs the city council or board meeting in violation of Section 871.01, Florida Statues, is subject to arrest by those law enforcement officers present. No action by the mayor or applicable presiding officer is required for a law enforcement officer to enforce Section 871.01, Florida Statutes. 

The ordinance proposal comes on the heels of several meetings where public comments were directed at specific members of the City Council. If Ordinance #2931 is succesful at its first reading Wednesday, it would return on Wednesday, May 18th for a second reading and vote for adoption.

 

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