The Janesville City Council will consider a proposal Monday to restrict the nature of public comments at its meetings.
If the change happens, public comment speakers could only discuss items on that night’s meeting agenda that don’t require a public hearing.
Public comment has traditionally served as an open forum about any number of topics, while public hearings are focused on a specific matter. There will be a public hearing Monday about the possible public comment change, for example.
Council members are legally barred from responding to speakers during public comment.
City staff and city council members said there would still be plenty of other ways to contact the council. These include informal monthly listening sessions, phone calls and emails. Phone numbers and email addresses for all council members are listed on the city’s website.
Maggie Darr, the assistant to the city manager, said it’s common for residents to contact the city council to get a new item placed on the agenda. Honorary proclamations often happen this way.
Limiting remarks to items that can be affected that night would improve efficiency, Darr said. She believes the council would remain responsive to the public regardless of any possible change.
Janesville staff looked at other peer cities to see how they handle public comments. The public comment period is not required by state statute.
Of the 14 cities, six have no restrictions, three limit comments to the current agenda, and two limit comments in a different way. Three cities—Green Bay, La Crosse and Wauwatosa—have no public comments at all.
Council President Rich Gruber and Vice President Tom Wolfe proposed the change.
Wolfe said he has not taken a stance, but he agreed to sponsor the amendment so that it could be discussed by the full council.
Gruber said residents contacted him to suggest the change.
Monday’s proposal comes a few weeks after former council candidate Jan Chesmore accused City Manager Mark Freitag of influencing the spring election during public comment April 22. Freitag later sent Chesmore a cease-and-desist letter.
Gruber said Chesmore’s remarks were not the impetus for Monday’s proposal. He noted there is historical precedent for modifying public comment; in 2015, the council combined two separate comment periods into one.
Wolfe said there are other speakers who have made unproductive comments, not just Chesmore. She was not the direct cause of the potential change, but she was “indirectly involved in the dialogue.”
“It’s wrong to allow a forum for that type of behavior. It’s a business meeting. We’re there to conduct business,” Wolfe said. “If people want to be respectful and provide feedback, I have no problem with that. But it’s not to be used as a forum for baseless accusations.”
Council member Jim Farrell said Chesmore’s comments were “highly, I think, inappropriate.” The council must stick to the agenda each meeting, so public speakers should do the same.
Some people use public comment to make personal attacks against staff and council members, which is unproductive and a poor use of everyone’s time, Farrell said.
One former council member criticized the possible change in a letter to the editor to The Gazette. Russ Steeber, who served a total of 10 years on the council between 2001 to 2013, said such attacks are part of being an elected official.
“If you don’t have thick skin, you really don’t have any business being in politics,” Steeber said in a follow-up interview.
Wide-ranging public comments are valuable because they let residents address the council and the public.
Maybe someone else in Janesville is dealing with a similar issue, Steeber said.
The council could reduce each speaker’s time from four minutes to three minutes. Maybe people could be limited to speaking once a month, Steeber said.
Even though public comments can sometimes be inefficient, they’re never a waste of time, Steeber said.
“What’s the problem with letting somebody speak their mind? They come with whatever it is they want to talk about,” he said.
“You may not be able to do anything for them, but they were able to vent. That’s what we’re there for.”