Winning the lottery: City Council’s new commenting policy draws controversy

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Mayor Mike Signer. Staff photo Mayor Mike Signer. Staff photo

A new policy proposed by City Council for those who wish to comment at regular meetings aims to make the process more inviting, but it has some doubting the new rule’s integrity.

Currently, a sign-up sheet is made available an hour before the start of each meeting and those hoping to speak must wait in line to snag one of 12 open slots on a first-come, first-served basis.

The new procedure would require prospective commenters to call, e-mail or meet in-person with Clerk of Council Paige Rice to request a spot on the list, and a digital selector would randomly choose 12 winners, whose names would be posted by noon Monday.

But some locals who routinely sign up to speak at City Council meetings believe the new lottery process is council’s way of pushing them out.

“It’s really hard to quantify the many ways that I think it’s a bad idea,” says frequent speaker Brandon Collins, who calls the new lottery process a “deliberate attempt to limit public comment.”

He says this City Council, under the new leadership of Mayor Mike Signer, already seems “sort of perturbed by things they’ve heard during public comment.” Council isn’t favorable to anyone who criticizes them, according to Collins.

One problem with the lottery process, he says, is that some people who sign up to speak have time-sensitive concerns that need to be addressed immediately.

The clerk already receives several inquiries a month from people who want to reserve a spot to speak, says Signer. Both Rice and City Manager Maurice Jones think at least twice as many people would be interested in speaking if they could put their names on the list ahead of time, he says.

Signer says the new commenting policy will increase access at council meetings and make it easier for the disabled, elderly and people with uncertain schedules to sign up. He also says it’s important to put this policy in context with the other proposed changes council members came up with at a recent work session to make meetings more orderly and efficient.

According to Signer, the public currently expects councilors to respond to each commenter. The new procedure would defer these general responses to the city manager, who would address remarks at the next meeting, while still allowing councilors to address individual comments. For their own comments, councilors will also have the same time limit for speaking that the public has, which is three minutes, and they’ll have five minutes to speak when introducing a motion or ordinance.

Another change will limit most items on the agenda to only 20 minutes of discussion.

“Last week, we spent over an hour talking about whether two trees could be moved,” says Signer. As for public comment, he says anyone can still speak at the end of the meetings, and with the newly imposed time constraints, it won’t take nearly as long to reach that portion of a meeting.

But Louis Schultz, another frequent speaker, believes the policy change aims to “dilute the voices of people who [sign up to speak] regularly.”

He thinks those who want to speak at meetings should make a commitment to arrive early enough to sign up. “I leave work earlier than I usually would,” Schultz says. “I lose money when I go to City Council meetings.”

The rule changes City Council is proposing are about “controlling what you can say as a citizen,” Schultz says. He particularly dislikes that responses to public comments will be deferred to the city manager because he wants to hear from City Council.

Local attorney Jeff Fogel says that while he’s suspicious of the new commenting policy, it “might not be a terrible idea.” His deepest concern is with the proposed increase in the mayor’s powers.

“He wants to muzzle his own councilors to no more than three minutes,” Fogel says. Questioning Signer’s motives for wanting the authority to turn off the cameras and audio during the taping of the meetings, which are always broadcast on local television, in the case of a disturbance or disorderly conduct, or his desire for the power to evict people from meetings and bar them from coming back, Fogel says Signer is “reminiscent of an authoritarian figure.”

The mayor is already authorized to oust trouble makers from meetings and bar them from coming back for a reasonable period of time.

A Charlottesville Tomorrow poll shows that 69 percent of those responding are against the new commenting policy.

However, Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy stands behind council’s attempts to increase community engagement.

“Change is hard. Some will like it, some won’t,” he writes in a Facebook post. “But what I fear most is that if we don’t try something new, we will continue to have the same broken system.” Bellamy ends his post by saying, “I heard over and over how we wanted things to be different, progressive, fresh and new…well now is our chance.”

The new policies were proposed at the February 16 City Council meeting, after C-VILLE went to press, and if approved, go into effect March 7 for a trial period of six months.

“I want to be crystal clear the point of this is to open this up to more people, make the process more accessible and to connect us with the broader section of Charlottesville’s populace,” Signer says.

Updated February 16 at 2:15pm to clarify that the mayor already has the power to evict and bar people from meetings.