Some Janesville City Council members, believing they know how to run meetings more efficiently, are considering placing new restrictions on the public comment period of council meetings.
The council tabled a proposal Monday night that would restrict speakers to addressing only items on the meeting agenda. The proposal isn’t necessarily dead, however, and could reemerge.
Such restrictions are unnecessary, in our opinion, and not in the public’s best interest. Residents benefit from having a forum to address the council, whether their concerns relate to an agenda item or something else entirely.
But we would support the adoption of new time limits. Currently, residents can speak up to four minutes, and a logical next step would be to restrict the number of times per month a resident is allowed to speak. Once a month would seem reasonable.
The council also should do a better job of policing speakers who make inappropriate remarks. If a speaker without evidence accuses either private residents or city staff of wrongdoing, the council shouldn’t hesitate to cut off that speaker. There’s a difference between criticizing council actions and ad hominem attacks against council members or city staff. The council should recognize this difference and set clear boundaries for speakers.
A couple unfortunate experiences with speakers running their mouths shouldn’t ruin the public comment period for everyone else. Residents deserve to be heard, and the public comment period is an ideal outlet for them. It puts residents on near-equal terms with their council representatives, who become a captive audience, at least for a few minutes, as residents address them instead of the reverse.
The May 28 meeting illustrates our point. During the public comment period, the general manager of the Wildwood Theatres Movies 16, Sarah Lehr, spoke about wanting a liquor license to serve alcoholic drinks at her theater. The council couldn’t take action that night, but she was heard. The Gazette then delved deeper into Lehr’s situation, leading to a June 5 news story and an editorial appearing Sunday.
Under the proposal tabled Monday night, Lehr presumably would have been prohibited from speaking about a liquor license because her request wasn’t on the agenda. She would have had to call or email city staff or council members, which might have been less impactful than addressing the full council.
There have been other instances, too, of residents raising important issues not on the council agenda during the public comment period, notably last year when the mother and aunt of a 12-year-old Janesville girl who committed suicide called for the passage of an anti-bullying ordinance. It didn’t pass but triggered a worthwhile community debate.
In most cases, the city council and public are better off for having heard speakers’ concerns and interests, especially those not on the council agenda. Trying to silence this type of speech would be shortsighted.