Public speakers at Janesville City Council meetings still can discuss any number of topics during public comment even if they aren’t on the agenda—at least for now.
The council narrowly tabled a proposal Monday that would have limited public comments to items that are on that night’s agenda. The motion to postpone the vote indefinitely passed 4-3, with Paul Benson, Doug Marklein and Paul Williams opposing the idea.
Tom Wolfe, who cosponsored the proposed changes to public comment, made the motion to table. Sue Conley seconded it. Wolfe wanted the council to schedule a study session before Sept. 30 to further discuss the issue.
Wolfe told The Gazette last week that although he cosponsored the idea, he had not taken a position yet.
Getting the idea on the agenda was the only way to talk with the council and the only way to schedule a study session, he said Monday.
Because Wolfe’s motion effectively postponed the measure, the council was legally barred from talking about it Monday night. That quickly ended discussion of the topic after six people spoke in favor of leaving the ordinance as is.
Last week, Wolfe and Rich Gruber, the proposal’s other cosponsor, said that even if public comment changed, residents could contact the council via phone or email. A phone number and email address for each council member is listed on the city’s website.
Several of Monday’s speakers questioned if emails and phone calls were sufficient.
Tom Brien, a former council member, said talking publicly about something not on the agenda makes speakers feel as if they’re being heard.
Aaron Aegerter said public comment increases accountability because the meeting is recorded and broadcast live on JATV.
Harry Paulsen said public comment is the only way to simultaneously inform the council and other residents about a specific issue.
Jackie Wood said any restrictions on public comment would decrease transparency and add a layer of bureaucracy to council meetings. The council could consider modifying public comment so people had fewer minutes to speak or could speak only once per month, she said.
It’s uncertain how or if the council will change public comment when it returns to the agenda after the study session.
Jim Farrell said Monday he doubted a study session would change his belief that public comment needs to be restricted.
Benson said he wants to keep public comment the way it is. His vote Monday was to give an answer to those who came to the meeting and shared their thoughts.
Wolfe said he hoped the study session would “dive deeper” on public comment law.
Currently, the council is restricted from responding to or asking questions of public comment speakers, but perhaps there is a way to legally modify public comment so more interaction is allowed, he said.