Talking about Talking in Alexandria

Talking about Talking in Alexandria

City Council approves change to public comment procedures.

At the City Council meeting on Jan. 10, the City Council spent an hour discussing whether or not the City Council takes too long discussing things. At the end of the meeting Vice Mayor Justin Wilson put forward a proposal that the first 10 speakers, later compromised to 12, be allowed to speak at the beginning of the public comment session and any speakers signed up after those 12 be asked to speak after the City Council has addressed the docket items. The council voted 6-1 to approve Wilson’s proposal, with Mayor Allison Silberberg strongly objecting.

On every City Council public hearing docket, it’s noted that the public discussion period is limited to 30 minutes. According to Wilson, only twice in the last year had this actually been observed, while twice the public comment had run for over 200 minutes.

The discussion was the latest showdown between Wilson and Silberberg, who have frequently butted heads over the last year on a number of issues. Silberberg called Wilson’s proposal draconian and arbitrary — arguing that the City Council’s role should be promoting feedback from the public, not curtailing it as she believed Wilson’s proposal would do. Wilson, however, said the point of the proposal was to ensure that the comment on docketed items was not diminished by the overly long comment periods.

Other members of the council supported Wilson’s proposal and added that the City Council needed to change the way it approached the public comment portion of the meetings.

“What’s extending this is, from the dais, we are engaging the public on everything,” said Councilman Willie Bailey. “We can take notes, get back with them later, pass it on to staff. When I first started, I thought that was how it was supposed to be. They speak and move on. But it seems like we’re engaging everyone that speaks. We don’t have to engage them [here]. That’s why we have email, that’s why we have our aides to set up appointments.”

While the public comment is intended to allow the council to hear issues raised by the public, Councilman John Chapman agreed that he’s heard several people who came to address the council disappointed by the way the meetings drag on with back and forth discussions on nearly every topic raised.

For some historical perspective, City Councilwoman Redella “Del” Pepper noted that this discussion is not new. Between 1961 and 1985, the mayoral position alternated between Frank Mann and Charles Beatley. Pepper said one major topic of disagreement between the two was that Beatley believed in giving everyone time to have their say, even taking pride in long meetings, while Mann ran the meetings like a business so people could get home sooner.