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Allentown Council may change some rules for public participation

By Randy Kraft, WFMZ.com Reporter, RKraft@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 11 2014 07:12:07 AM CDT
Updated On: Apr 11 2014 12:00:06 PM CDT
Allentown City Council
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -

There is some potential good news and some bad news for residents who attend Allentown City Council meetings.

The good news is council may change its policy to allow the public to speak on bills when they are introduced -- at least on a trial basis.

Currently, proposed legislation is introduced with no discussion by members of City Council and the public is not allowed to speak.

The bad news, at least to some residents, is council may require people who want to speak at meetings to sign in when they arrive -- and write down the subject they want to talk about.

Council also may allow members of the public to make Power Point presentations at its meetings, but they may get only three minutes to do so.

Those issues involving public involvement in council meetings were discussed Thursday night by its three-member Rules, Intergovernmental Relations and Strategy Committee.

Council president Julio Guridy, who chairs the committee, said its recommendations will be presented to the full council in early May.

Guridy said he wants meetings to be run “efficiently, effectively and in the shortest amount of time possible.”

The committee meeting was attended by only five residents, all regulars at City Council meetings.

Four of them voiced opposition to the idea of requiring sign-in sheets.

Council vice president Ray O’Connell, who serves on the rules committee, pushed hard for City Council to allow members of the public to speak when new ordinances are introduced.

Currently, brief summaries of those ordinances are read by the city clerk and then they immediately are assigned to committees by the council president, with no discussion by council members.

That also is one of the few times during a meeting when the public is not allowed to go to the podium to speak. That practice has spurred some strong objections from members of the public at previous council meetings, especially when controversial pieces of legislation are being introduced.

O’Connell wants that practice changed, so both council members and the public can speak on ordinances being introduced. “You’re giving the public a chance to ask a question about the bill.”

Guridy and Cynthia Mota, the third member of the committee, disagreed.

They argued that council members may not know enough about a piece of legislation being introduced to answer any questions about it.

“I don’t see any harm in it,” O’Connell said repeatedly. “I just don’t think we should shut out the public.”

“We’re not shutting them out,” countered Guridy. “It’s just not the appropriate time for them to talk about the bill because we don’t have all the information.”

Guridy said people can offer questions and comments on proposed legislation by attending the public meeting of whatever committee is assigned to review it.

“You get into the meat and potatoes when you have a committee meeting,” agreed O’Connell. “We can say ‘we don’t have enough information to answer that question, please come to the committee meeting and we’ll hash it out.’”

O’Connell doesn’t expect many people will come to the podium to address council when bills are introduced. “But it’s fair to give them a shot to come up and say ‘what is that bill about?’”

Guridy predicted the change advocated by O’Connell will just be a waste of time that makes meetings last longer.

“Every time an ordinance is introduced, people will come up and speak about it,” predicted Guridy. “Everyone will want to speak about it.”

“We already give the public a lot of leeway and dialogue,” said O’Connell. “I don’t see this extending our meetings much longer then they normally are.”

Saying O’Connell is “obviously very adamant about this,” Guridy said he would be willing to do it on a trial basis for six months “to see how it works.”

“That’s a fair compromise,” said O’Connell. ”Let’s see if it’s abused or if it’s utilized properly.”

“That would be a good idea,” agreed Mota. “Let’s give it a try for six months.”

Sign-in sheets

All three committee members supported the idea of having sign-in sheets for people who want to speak.

The council president said people who want to speak also could call or email the city clerk’s office to get on the list. “It would be first come, first served,” said Guridy.

He will want people to write down their addresses, phone numbers and the topic they want to talk about.

Resident Ken Heffentrager called “fantastic” O’Connell’s proposal to let people speak when ordinances are introduced. But regarding sign-in sheets, Heffentrager said: “No, absolutely not.”

He argued that some people already are reluctant to stand up in front of City Council. “They’re scared to death to walk up here,” he said.

“We never put anybody on the spot,” responded Guridy. “We encourage them to speak. That’s never been an issue in the 13 years I’ve been on council.”

Resident Julian Kern called sign-in sheets pointless. “It’s going to discourage people from coming up here.”

And resident Glenn Hunsicker said sign-in sheets will “impede the process. You’re changing things that don’t have to be changed.”

Guridy and O’Connell disagreed. They said even after a meeting is underway, people could sign in to speak if they decide they want to do so.

The logistics of that would have to be worked out, since the committee members also said the sign-in sheets would be given to the council president when the meetings begin, so he can call on people.

Guridy said sign-in sheets are used by the Allentown School Board “and it works. It keeps the meeting orderly.”

“Let’s give it a try,” said Guridy. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll discontinue it.”

Power Points

The committee agreed that members of the public be allowed to make Power Point presentations to City Council.

But they suggested those presentations be limited to three minutes, unless the council president agrees in advance to allow them to be longer.

They also want all presentations reviewed by the city clerk before shown at a public council meeting. “We should see it so people don’t bring a presentation at the last minute and we don’t know what we’re looking at,” said Guridy.

Some people at the meeting said three minutes is not enough time for Power Point presentations. Council members suggested those presentations could be backed up with more detailed written materials.

Enforcing time limits

Allentown’s City Council allows far more opportunities for the public to speak during its meetings than the governing boards of some other municipalities. Many others give the public only one or two opportunities to stand up and express opinions during public meetings.

City Council allows people three minutes to speak. If they represent an organization, they are given five minutes. Council uses a time clock, but those limits are not routinely enforced. Some residents ask questions or engage in debates with city officials – conversations that sometimes go on for 10 minutes or more.

Heffentrager suggested council should do more to enforce its time limits.

Guridy said he has no problem enforcing time limits, but people get upset and even belligerent when he tells them their time is up.

“They’re disrupting council,” he said. “They say: ‘I’m not sitting down until I get an answer to this question’.”

Other issues

O’Connell recommended council reshuffle its meeting agendas so ordinances and resolutions up for final votes are handled first and ordinances only being introduced are placed farther down on agendas.

“I’d like to see everything we have to vote on up front,” said O’Connell, adding people come to meetings because they want to see how council votes.

Hunsicker suggested putting meeting agendas and other printed information being discussed on the two big screens in the front of council chambers so people in the audience can follow along. “That’s a good idea!” said O’Connell.

Guridy said he does not support having video recordings made of City Council meetings, because it will encourage people “to come up and grandstand -- just talk and talk and talk.”