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City Council passes resolution to implement new meeting procedures

The meeting start time and public comment structure are among the changed procedures

<p>Jeff Fogel, a local attorney and city resident, said the ordinance was a misguided reaction by the Council to the events of Aug. 12.&nbsp;</p>

Jeff Fogel, a local attorney and city resident, said the ordinance was a misguided reaction by the Council to the events of Aug. 12. 

The Charlottesville City Council unanimously passed a resolution Monday to revise its general body meeting structure and procedures of operation. 

The revisions address the manner in which the Council’s meetings will be conducted in the future, including how the body will engage citizen speakers and how it will encourage participatory dialogue between the councilors and the public. 

Council meetings will now begin at 6:30 p.m. rather than the traditional 7 p.m. start time. Meetings will still be held on the first and third Monday of each month or the following day if the Monday is a federally recognized holiday. 

The “Matters by the Public” comment section usually held before the Council conducts its regular business meeting will now be replaced with a “Community Matters” public comment period. During this time, 16 individuals will be able to sign-up to speak for three minutes each. 

Eight of these speakers will be randomly selected from a list of individuals who signed up to speak in advance, while the remaining eight will be required to sign-up on the day of the meeting on a first-come, first-served basis. 

In addition to their three minute speaking time, speakers from the audience will be allocated two minutes of time for councilors to respond to issues and concerns brought up during each speaker’s remarks. 

The previous meeting structure for public comment allowed for 15 speakers — initially 12 before being amended in March 2017 — who are allotted three minutes each to express their concerns on any range of issues to the Council during the matters by the public portion of the meeting.

The first 10 speakers were chosen randomly regardless of how and when they signed up, while the remaining five speaking slots were allocated to in-person attendees 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. 

Charlottesville City Attorney Lisa Robertson said the purpose of these modifications was to increase public participation at city council meetings.

“City Council wants to be more responsive to the members of the public who speak during ‘matters by the public’ … and to start each meeting a half hour earlier to accommodate an increased amount of participation,” Robertson said. 

Robertson added that the Council — presided over by the mayor — hopes to foster an informal dialogue between the Council and community members at future meetings.

“[The Council] wants to … allow the presiding office to manage the meeting in a less formal manner but retaining rules and guidelines for speakers that focus on preventing disruptions and acting to address actual discussions,” Robertson said. 

The Council also passed a resolution in a 3-2 vote to eliminate a clause from its originally proposed meeting guidelines, which barred speakers during the public comment from ceding their speaking time to others if the recipient had already spoken. Councilors Mike Signer and Wes Bellamy and Mayor Nikuyah Walker voted in favor of the resolution, while Councilor Kathy Galvin and Vice Mayor Heather Hill voted against it. 

During the Council’s debate on the resolution, Walker spoke in favor of the revision. 

“If someone wants to share their time, and it’s with someone who already had time, then I don't see why that matters,” Walker said. “It's not added time. It’s the same amount of time. They're just sharing it with someone they choose to share it with.”

Galvin spoke against the resolution, stating it would give an unfair advantage to certain groups of speakers. 

“What I am trying to avoid is multiple people ceding their time to the same person so that person is having more times to speak,” Galvin said. “That seems to be unfair to other people who have been signing up.”

Hill also characterized the resolution as unfair to individuals who signed up to speak in advance. 

“We have a limited number of people who are able to speak,” Hill said. “I think it is unfair to someone who is on the waitlist to not get even a moment of time to speak because someone else has been able to speak on more than one occasion at that opening session.” 

The Council also considered a resolution to increase the amount of time for each speaker during the public comment from three to four minutes, although it was defeated in a 3-2 vote. Bellamy, Signer and Hill voted against the measure, while Walker and Galvin voted in favor of it. 

Before the new meeting procedures were officially adopted by the Council, a public hearing was held during the meeting to allow community members to comment on the proposed guidelines.

Jeffrey Fogel, a city resident and a local attorney, said he approved of the new guidelines but called on the Council to honor its commitment to them.

“There's a lot of good things about these new council procedures,” Fogel said. “However, putting them on paper is not sufficient. You all have to make a commitment to do what you say you are going to do.”

City resident Nancy Carpenter spoke in favor of the ability of individuals to be able to cede their speaking time to others. 

“If someone … wants to, at the last, minute decide that they have the strength and the fortitude and want to come down and address you … I feel like I should have the right in this republic, in this democracy to cede my time to someone whose voice hasn't necessarily been heard before,” Carpenter said. 

The Council will reassess the newly implemented meeting guidelines in two months to judge if they are effectively engaging the public and increasing participation. 

“None of this is permanent,” Hill said. “What we're trying to be is flexible, and I think we're at a starting point tonight … for the next several meetings and see what's working, and maybe we'll have to revisit them again.”