Lawrence city leaders express interest in putting cap on amount of general public comment at meetings
photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot
Lawrence city leaders say they are interested in putting some limits on general public comments at meetings, capping the period allowed for those comments at 30 minutes.
As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission discussed potential changes to how it handles public comment during meetings. The commission’s meetings have regularly been going to about 11 p.m., and sometimes later, and the commission agreed that limiting general public comment — as opposed to the comment period for specific agenda items — could allow the commission to get to its regular agenda sooner and provide more predictability to the public.
“Not to limit the input, but to increase the time in which we can get and encourage public comment on those regular agenda items,” Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said.
Local governing bodies — the Douglas County Commission, City Commission and the Lawrence school board — have seen an increase in public commenters over the past couple of years, some of whom speak about issues not clearly related to the business of the governing body, promote political campaigns, or share misinformation on other topics. At times, commenters have become hostile or cursed at commissioners.
The city currently allows the public to comment throughout the meeting, by pulling items from the consent agenda, during general public comment for issues not on the agenda, and on each individual agenda item. There is no limit on the time allotted for general public comment or how many times someone can comment overall, but commenters are limited to one three-minute comment at each comment opportunity.
Commissioners agreed that they would be interested in putting a 30-minute cap on the total amount of general public comment and moving the general public comment period to the beginning of the meeting, thereby providing the public a definite time for when the commission will begin its regular agenda. Commissioners also agreed that general public comment should be first-come, first-served and that there should be a sign-up process.
Commissioner Amber Sellers also said, and other commissioners agreed, that it would be good to see more specific guidelines for decorum at meetings and that the guidelines should clearly state that comments should relate to the business of the governing body. Sellers said she thought the changes would improve the process and encourage more members of the public to speak.
“This process is going to give us an opportunity to have more people to come out and speak and feel like they have space to speak here,” Sellers said.
A handful of people spoke against the commission making any changes to limit public comment. One commenter, Michael Almon, said he understood some of the issues the commission was dealing with, and while he was not sure of the best way to address it, he didn’t think limiting public comment was the way.
“Democracy is messy,” Almon said. “I think all of us have probably heard that before. You put a cap on it, it’s going to be messier.”
As part of the meeting, city staff presented a chart of how other municipalities and other local governing bodies handle public comment, as well as some potential changes that the commission could discuss regarding general public comment and consent agenda public comment. In addition to requiring advance sign-up and updating decorum language, those potential changes are as follows:
Potential changes for discussion for general public comment:
• Move to beginning or end of meeting
• Place a cap on the total time allowed for comments
• Limit to one agenda per month – no cap
• Add disclaimer
• Do not include in video feed
Potential changes for discussion for consent agenda public comment:
• Consent items no longer eligible for public comment unless a public hearing is required
• Place public hearing items on regular agenda or create a separate consent agenda
• Public education on ways to communicate with the governing body
The commission did not come to a consensus on any changes to how the consent agenda should be handled, and asked for staff to come back with a recommendation about that. Tuesday’s meeting was the commission’s initial discussion of potential changes, and any changes will be discussed and voted on at a later date.