Proposed modifications to public participation in Allentown City Council meetings spurred a lively and sometimes angry discussion during a council committee meeting Monday evening in a fifth floor conference room in City Hall.
With one minor change, council’s rules, intergovernmental relations and strategy committee is recommending that the full council approve a resolution containing the changes when it meets Wednesday night.
One contentious change in the proposed resolution would ask people to sign in with their name and address to speak at council meetings, but would not restrict those who do not sign in. Currently no one signs in.
Another change would allow the public to make Power Point presentations at council meetings, but people would be limited to three minutes and required to submit those presentations several days in advance for review. Hard copies of those Power Points also would be required.
The resolution also would allow public comment on proposed ordinances and resolutions when they first are introduced to council.
In the past, council did not allow comment when they first were introduced; they were assigned to committees with no discussion by council members.
And council will consider requiring that remarks made by the public at meetings should be addressed to council, not the audience. That recommendation is in response to a resident recently turning his back on council when standing before it.
All the proposed changes were approved by Julio Guridy, who is president of council and chairman of the committee, and by committee member Cynthia Mota.
Council vice president Ray O’Connell, who also serves on that committee, was absent.
The two committee members were willing to compromise only on how far in advance Power Point presentations must be submitted to the city clerk’s office for review.
It originally was proposed as eight days, but Guridy was willing to reduce that to a Friday or Monday before a Wednesday council meeting.
“We didn’t even allow Power Points before,” he said. Council has allowed a couple of them within the last year, but at least one went well over three minutes.
Only a few residents attended the committee meeting, including three who regularly attend City Council meetings and frequently question and criticize council and the city administration.
Rich Fegley, the most combative of those critics, claimed “council is basically saying ‘we want to stop all public discourse’.”
Said Guridy: “We give people more time and opportunity to speak than many other municipalities.”
Former City Council member Michael Donovan recommended that City Council delay action on some of the changes. He said people already don’t feel confident that council listens to them. “If you move on these rules, it could just exacerbate things further.”
Responded Guridy: “I don’t think the public has a problem with it. Five or six of you have a problem with it.”
On May 7, Fegley stood at the podium before City Council, but abruptly turned his back on council members and faced the public while he was talking. He said council was not respecting what he had to say.
On Monday, Guridy called that behavior uncivilized and disrespectful. “You know that’s not the way we run the meetings,” he told Fegley.
Fegley accused Guridy of creating a battlefield, saying: “If you’re going to be disrespectful, we can do that too.” Fegley even objected to Guridy referring to some of the men sitting around the conference room table as “you guys.” He said Guridy should call them “gentlemen.”
Resident Tom Hahn accused Guridy of filibustering.
Hahn complained that too many questions asked by the public go to the “I’ll-get-back-to-you committee.” He said Guridy never answers his emails.
Seeking more civility
Guridy agreed with Donovan that the overall objective of the proposed changes is “to have proper civic deliberation with a certain amount of decorum.”
Guridy often advises the people in the audience at council meetings to conduct themselves as if they were in a courtroom.
“It is not a courtroom,” said Donovan. “I disagree with your analogy.”
“No, it’s not a courtroom, but we should have discourse in a civil manner,” said the council president.
Council member Joe Davis, who was at the meeting but not on the committee, indicated steps are being taken to create a citizen's committee that will look into ways for council to conduct its business within a two-hour meeting.
Davis acknowledged sign-in sheets and continuing three-minute limits on people speaking may not be the solution to improving public discourse during council meetings.
“There has to be a better way,” said Davis.
Donovan objected to people having to write down their names to address council. He said it’s intimidating. “I do not like it. It holds people back. You’re making a mistake.”
Guridy said signing in to speak works well at Allentown School Board meetings.
He said doing so helps to keep meetings more orderly.
Guridy also said people who don’t sign in will not be excluded from speaking at council meetings.
“Then why have the sign-in in the first place?” countered Donovan.
Guridy said he is not married to the idea of asking people to sign-in, which he added was not his idea.
City Council does not intend to change its rule allowing members of the public to speak for three minutes and those representing organizations to speak for five.
It is a rule not uniformly enforced, especially when people ask questions of council and the administration, which can spur lengthy discussions.
Resident Glenn Hunsicker asked if the three-minute limit to speak applies to committee meetings as well as full council meetings. Guridy said it does.
(Monday’s committee meeting was an exception. Rather than council members sitting behind the dais in City Council chambers, they shared the conference room table with members of the public, which allowed for a more casual conversation. )
Guridy told Hunsicker the three-minute limit also applies to Power Point presentations “for the public.”
Fegley objected to most residents only getting three minutes to speak when they stand to address issues at council meetings and because they don’t get their questions answered.
Said Fegley: “If there is significant, important information that needs to be shared, if it takes 20 minutes or 30 minutes, we need to make time for that.”
Donovan noted that in the past couple of years “policies have been presented that are fairly complex. The group in favor of the policy often will have a significant amount of time to present their case.”
But he said people on the other side of the issue have questions, but don’t necessarily get the opportunity to examine the data or have a formal process for more give-and-take about the data to get answers. “That’s created a frustration.”
Guridy vs. Fegley
Guridy said some people disagree with a point “and they keep harping on it and harping on it.
“Some people want to ask a question about every sentence on any given topic,” he said.
“That’s uncalled for. You have three minutes to ask a question, not to dissect the whole resolution or legislation. Otherwise, we will be there until the cows come home and we won’t be able to run council business effectively.”
At one point Guridy told Hahn he was doing exactly what he does at City Council meetings – “you just keep talking and talking and asking questions.”
“So why aren’t you answering his questions?” asked Fegley.
When Guridy said he was answering them, Fegley said he was not, adding: “No one answered any of our questions.”
At one point, Guridy told Hahn: “You guys know what you want to do to council.”
Fegley demanded to know “what is it that we want to do? You are accusing us of something and I’d like you to state it to the press and the media. What is it that we’re trying to do? What do you mean by that?”
Responded Guridy to Fegley: “You want to get as much information as you can get; but also people like you, specifically, want to talk without timing.”
Fegley maintained he has never gone over the three-minute limit.
Guridy said he has done it many times. “It’s more than a time issue,” said Fegley. “What is it that we’re trying to do?”
“Speaking as long as you want to,” said Guridy.
Donovan, who was an unsuccessful candidate for mayor in the last election, suggested City Council should explore other ways “to have deep conversations about serious public policy issues of the city” without three or five-minute time constraints.
“We as a city do not do a good job in making the public feel comfortable to question politicians and policy,” said Donovan.
More than one person at the meeting suggested council members themselves should be raising some of the questions being asked by the public.
“Having sat on the dais, sometime we don’t have all the information available immediately,” said Donovan, who served on council 2008-2011.
But Donovan also suggested part of the problem may be that the mayor and members of council are all Democrats. “If you had three or four Republicans on it, it may be a little bit more contentious between executive and council.”
Frustration with administration
Some frustration at getting questions answered seemed directed at a lack of access to the city administration.
Hunsicker, for example, complained about residents having to file right-to-know requests to get information from city government.
Noting City Council is the legislative body of city government, Guridy said it cannot obligate the city administration to meet with the public.
Although elected, Mayor Ed Pawlowski does not routinely attend City Council meetings.
The meetings are attended by Francis Dougherty, the city’s managing director, but he often is not prepared to give people an immediate response to their questions.
Guridy noted city administrators do attend council committee meetings and can answer questions on whatever issue is before those committees.
He said by people going to those committee meetings with their questions, “it streamlines and shortens” discussions on issues that come up for a vote at council meetings. “That’s what committee meetings are for.”
Public comment on introduced legislation
It is being recommended to council that allowing the public to speak on bills and resolutions being introduced will be done on a six-month trial basis to see how it works.
Guridy did not initially support that suggestion, because council may not yet have any information about a proposal only being introduced and assigned to a committee. He said the issue is discussed at a committee meeting, where the public is allowed to ask questions.
But he said O’Connell was very adamant about allowing the public to speak when legislation is introduced.
Other changes in the proposed resolution
The proposed resolution contains other changes to council rules that less directly involve the public but are aimed at improving meetings.
• Items that are to be acted upon by council will be moved higher on the meeting agenda.
• All appointments can be voted on at one time.
• The “consent agenda” – called a legacy item that doesn’t fit into current procedures – would be eliminated from future council meeting agendas.
• The City Charter rule that the administration can introduce legislation will be codified.