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City Council receives community feedback on increasing engagement, participation

The Council is currently in the process of revising its meeting structure and procedures

<p>Assoc. Education Prof. Walt Heinecke addresses the Council during Tuesday’s hearing.</p>

Assoc. Education Prof. Walt Heinecke addresses the Council during Tuesday’s hearing.

The Charlottesville City Council held a public hearing Tuesday night to allow community members to express their opinions on the revision of the Council’s meeting structure and operating procedures.

The Council typically reviews and revises its meeting guidelines every couple of years with the most recent overhaul taking place in February 2016. Since the current meeting guidelines were adopted in that year, they have been amended a number of times due to citizen concerns of decreased citizen engagement and participation resulting from the procedures. 

The current meeting procedures for public comment allow for 15 speakers — initially 12 before being amended March of last year — who are allotted three minutes each during the first matters by the public portion of the meeting in which citizens can express their concerns on any range of issue to the Council. 

The first 10 speakers are chosen randomly regardless of how and when they sign up, while the remaining five speaking slots are allocated to in-person attendees at meeting on a first come, first served basis. Under the original February 2016 guidelines, all of the speakers were chosen randomly, but an amendment to the procedures later that year allowed for in-person sign ups immediately before the meetings began. 

The topic of effective citizen engagement with the Council has been contentious throughout the aftermath of the deadly ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville this past August. Many community activists have said the current meeting structure for public comment is insufficient and does not allow for community members to adequately express their concerns to the Council.  

Mayor Nikuyah Walker made the subject a major aspect of her successful bid for Council this past November, criticizing the Council’s past tendency to conduct “business as usual” rather than listen to the concerns of community members in the aftermath of the rally. 

At the Aug. 21 Council meeting immediately after the rally, attendees halted the regular meeting agenda to demand answers concerning the City’s ineffective response to the demonstrations. 

The interruption of Council members and speakers alike by the audience and speaking out of turn have been commonplace at most meetings since then. Detractors of the tactic have criticized a lack of civility and order at the conduct of recent meetings. 

Councilor Wes Bellamy proposed a series of potential revisions to the structure and operating procedures of the Council’s meetings before the public hearing was held, including expanding opportunities for citizen engagement and increased Council transparency.

In particular, Bellamy focused on beginning Council meetings earlier to allow for the inclusion of an hour-long town hall in which Council members would immediately respond to citizen concerns before moving on to its regular agenda. The town halls would assume the place of the initial matters by the public comment period — though one would still be held at the end of each meeting. 

Currently, City Council meetings begin at 7 p.m. and a public comment period is held early in the meeting. Bellamy proposed that the town hall begin at 5:45 p.m. and end at 6:45 p.m. which would be followed by the regular business meeting at 7 p.m.

According to Bellamy, Walker — who was not present at Tuesday’s meeting due to an illness but had expressed her ideas to Bellamy before the meeting — said it was important to avoid beginning meetings too early to accommodate the employment schedules of more community members. Bellamy further said that his initially proposed times were only a suggestion and agreed with Walker’s concern to accommodate employment schedules. 

Councilor Kathy Galvin suggested that the Council hold monthly town hall meetings in addition to Bellamy’s proposed revisions, and said they should be held outside of City Hall to allow for an informal exchange of ideas between Council and community members.

“When we’re talking about having a dialogue between the community and councilors, this elevated dais does not lend itself to real eyeball to eyeball to dialogue,” Galvin said. “It's actually very hierarchical, you’re [Council members] looking down on a person, it's not conducive to that mutual exchange.” 

Both Councilors Mike Signer and Galvin also suggested that City staff be present at such town hall meetings in the event that a counselor was unable to effectively address any concerns raised by the public. 

Bellamy emphasized that all of the proposed revisions to the Council’s meeting structure and procedures would be further subject to community engagement before the body would make any final decisions on the matter. 

During the public hearing, most of the speakers expressed their disapproval of the current meeting guidelines and called for a more transparent, dialogue based approach to community engagement. 

Paul Long, a city resident and a former Council candidate, said that the Council should prioritize allowing citizens to speak for longer than the current three minutes at meetings.

“I think the amount of time the speaker has should be increased to maybe four or five minutes, or at least have the mayor use some discretion if the speaker is going over the three minutes,” Long said. 

Long also defended the interuptory nature of recent Council meeting by claiming that the Council has failed to respect the citizens by not adequately listening to their concerns. 

“I think if you want respect, you have to give respect,” Long said. “Respect is a two-way thing — if leadership is giving the citizen respect, they are going to return it.”

“When you have six or eight or nine policemen in the hall right outside, that's intimidating,” Long added. 

Don Gathers, who chaired the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials and Public Spaces, also justified the rowdy nature of recent Council meetings by stating that the city failed to protect its citizens during the events of this past August. 

“This community feels that our city government failed us with the lack of appropriate response, all of which has led to a lack of trust and faith in those elected to govern,” Gathers said. “When the government fails to adequately protect its citizenry, anarchy is the result. That is what you have experienced at Council meetings since May of 2017.”

Kyle Chilton, a local resident, said that town halls before Council meetings or at other times were an effective method to engage the public, but stressed that citizen participation needs to be present throughout the meetings. 

“I think it's very important that we don't move all of the public speaking to the beginning and the end of the Council meetings, that there is still a very important role for the public during the agenda items … as they are being presented to Council,” Chilton said. 

Walt Heinecke, a city resident and an associate professor of education at the University, said the Council needed to restore community trust in local government for effective engagement to take place. 

“Trust, as it’s been said earlier, needs to be rebuilt,” Heinecke said. “You can't do procedures and policies without the trust building, so please think about that trust building as an integral part of thinking about the public engagement strategy.”

The Council will further discuss the revision of meeting procedures and structure at its annual retreat Thursday and Friday at Morven Farms which is open to the public. The Council will make a final decision on the matter at the Feb. 5 meeting.