City leaders pull back from idea of limiting general public comment, voice support for new decorum rules

photo by: City of Lawrence screenshot

Mayor Courtney Shipley, Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen, and commissioners Brad Finkeldei and Bart Littlejohn participate in the City Commission's meeting on Sept. 20, 2022. Commissioner Amber Sellers was absent and Littlejohn participated virtually.

In a reversal from their previous direction, city leaders have pulled back on the idea of limiting general public comment as a way to make their meetings more efficient, but continue to support adding more specific decorum rules.

As part of its meeting Tuesday, the Lawrence City Commission continued its conversation about a potential 30-minute limit on general public comment, updated decorum rules, and changes to how the city handles its consent agenda. The commission did not vote on the item, but directed staff to bring back a resolution that includes the decorum update and another addition that public comment should be germane to the business of the governing body, and to discard the other changes.

City Clerk Sherri Riedemann told commissioners that city staff looked at the average length of general public comment from 2019 to the present and found that in the majority of the cases it is under 30 minutes, and in many cases well under. The commission had discussed combining the 30-minute limit with a specific start time for the regular agenda to create predictability and efficiency, but Riedemann said the city was not recommending the latter because it could end up creating stagnant time.

“So if we are looking at efficiency, waiting for a specific time to start other items really wouldn’t support that,” Riedemann said. However, she said all the combined changes in their totality could help to make meetings more efficient.

The commission heard from seven members of the public who were opposed to the limit on public comment, with some of them saying that was the time they were able to bring their concerns and points of view to the governing body.

Regarding efficiency, Vice Mayor Lisa Larsen said she didn’t see the value of putting a 30-minute time limit on general public comment if the average time spent does not exceed that amount and if not combined with a specific start time for the regular or consent agenda. She also said she didn’t want to limit commenting for items on the consent agenda.

“I agree that we need to give the opportunity for our community members to come and speak to us, and that doesn’t seem to be an area where we’re losing a lot of time, from what I’m hearing from staff,” Larsen said.

Like other local governing bodies, the commission has seen an increase in public commenters over the past couple of years who speak about issues not clearly related to the business of the governing body, promote political campaigns, share misinformation on other topics, and at times become hostile with commissioners or members of the public. Larsen said that she was concerned with general decorum and trying to maintain civility, and that she would support adding the new decorum language and the addition about comment being germane to the governing body. Other commissioners agreed.

The updated decorum language proposed by city staff specifies: “The following will not be tolerated: uttering fighting words, slander, speeches invasive of the privacy of individuals, unreasonably loud or repetitious speech, and speeches so disruptive of the proceedings that the business of the City is substantially interrupted.” As before, members of the public may, after a warning, be subject to removal from the meeting.

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 regular agenda item. Both city commissioners and members of the public can pull any item off the consent agenda for public comment and a separate vote from the commission.

The resolution discussed Tuesday proposed two separate consent agendas, one for general consent items and a separate section for any consent agenda items that require a public hearing by law, such as rezoning requests. Under the proposal, commissioners could pull items from both consent agendas, but absent such action the public could only make live public comment (in-person or via Zoom) on the public hearing consent agenda items. The commission would continue to accept written public comment on all consent agenda items.

Mayor Courtney Shipley, who before being elected to the commission was chair of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods, said she saw Larsen’s point about the consent agenda.

“I could have been talked into separate consents, but I will say, having come to these meetings for many years before this, I’ve pulled all kinds of things, and sometimes at the last minute because you just didn’t notice it or think anything of it until the last minute,” Shipley said.

Riedemann said the city also reviewed interactions with the consent agenda since 2019, and she said that at the majority of those meetings, there were items that were pulled off the consent agenda. She also said that the commission on average spent more time on consent agenda items than general public comments. Commissioner Brad Finkeldei said people might just make comments about consent agenda items during the general public comment portion of the meeting if they were not allowed to pull those items, so the change might not end up saving any time.

Though commissioners pulled back from some of the potential limits on public comment, Commissioner Bart Littlejohn said the commission still needed to find a balance, as meetings consistently go past 11 p.m.

“We’ve consistently not been able to finish things on our agenda, which gets pushed back to the following agenda,” Littlejohn said. “So I’m all for everybody in the meeting having the chance to speak, that’s great. I’m just hoping that we can find a balance of actually getting things done for the city as well.”

Commissioners also came to a consensus, with Commissioner Amber Sellers absent, that they would like to see general public comment moved to the beginning of the meeting and wanted to continue including that portion of the meeting in the city’s video stream of the meeting.

The amended resolution will come back as part of a future consent agenda.


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