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Some Atlanta Councilmembers Seek Vote to Silence the Public, Again

(APN) ATLANTA -- Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd (District 12) and six other Councilmembers have set their sights on new public comment rules that would further limit the time allotted to citizens to speak at Council Committees, and would set other restrictions.

Currently, each Committee Chair sets their own rules for public comment at each of the seven Committees of the Atlanta City Council.  With the exception of Community Development/Human Resources Cmte, which Sheperd has chaired since 2010, no other Committee has historically had a time limit on public comment.

Sheperd and the others have co-sponsored legislation that, if approved, would limit the discretion of the Committee Chairs and set a single rule that would impact each Committee.

The legislation will be considered at the Committee on Council Meeting on Monday, February 04, 2013 and could also be considered at the Full Council Meeting later that day.

Ivory Lee Young (District 3), Cleta Winslow (District 4), Alex Wan (District 6), Howard Shook (District 7), Aaron Watson (Post 2-at-large), and Lamar Willis (Post 3-at-large) have co-sponsored the legislation.

The rule would limit a member of the public to only three minutes of public comment per item in addition to three minutes of general comment at the end of each Committee Meeting.  

While in theory, this could allow a member of the public to speak quite a bit by speaking on multiple items, in reality most citizens who come down to address the Council Committees, either sporadically or on a regular basis, come to address one item: either an item on the agenda, or, as is often the case, an item not on the agenda.

Therefore, the likely impact of this legislation is to, in actuality, limit most members of the public to three minutes of public comment time at Council Committee Meetings.

Senior Advocate Ben Howard--a frequent commenter at meetings of the Atlanta City Council--told Atlanta Progressive News that he believes the legislation is an effort to silence the public during an election year, so that citizens will have fewer opportunities to publicly critique the sitting incumbents.

In some Council Members’ minds, there is a problem of citizens taking too much time at the microphone at Committee Meetings.  

In reality, there are only a few citizens who even come down to the meetings to speak regularly.  This small group includes Howard, Dave Walker, Brother Anthony Muhammad, Ron Shakir, and APN’s News Editor, the present writer.

Since Sheperd began her rule in 2010, a five minute limit at CD/HR meetings only, there have been numerous occasions in which members of the public have run out of time to speak.  

There have been also been numerous occasions in which Sheperd has called security on members of the public who wished to complete their thought and objected to the five minute rule.

On one occasion, a woman who came to address CD/HR, left after being told she would have only two minutes to speak.  [As previously reported by APN, there used to be a rule at CD/HR that a person would have only two minutes to speak if they were late, but that rule was later done away with after objections by APN’s News Editor.]  The incident is relevant because three minutes is not much different than two.

Meanwhile, there has continued to be no limit at such committees at City Utilities, Committee on Council, Finance/Executive, Public Safety/Legal Administration, and Transportation; and this has never presented a problem.

On the infrequent occasion where there is a topic where numerous citizens show up to speak on a single issue, sometimes a time limit has been set per person.  Or if an individual citizen has gone on for a long time while being repetitive, a Chairperson has sometimes asked the person to wrap up their comments.

Therefore, in APN’s analysis, there is no legitimate need for this rule.

APN’s Editor has made dozens of presentations over the last several years which have been more than three minutes, including numerous five minute presentations at CD/HR, as well as, for other examples:

- A seven minute presentation at Finance/Executive Cmte on public banking opportunities for the City of Atlanta;

- A seven minute presentation at Transportation Cmte about the Transportation Cmte Briefings;

- An eleven minute presentation to Public Safety/Legal Administration about the hastily introduced walk-in proposal to increase penalties for certain panhandlers, which included several minutes of comments by Council Members and the Law Department in response.

- A seven minute presentation at Transportation Cmte regarding the Airport Concessions bidding process.

- A ten minute presentation at Public Safety/Legal Administration about the need for policy change within the Atlanta Police Department following the Atlanta Eagle Raid.

- A seven minute presentation to the Committee on Council of a Citizens’ Wish List for Transparency, Accountability, Ethics, and Public Input.

- An eleven minute presentation to the Committee on Council regarding Committee Briefings, including comments by the Chair.

As in the cases of the Eagle Raid and the Committee Briefings, the presentations have been effective in, at least in part, leading to policy and practice changes within the City of Atlanta.  In all of the cases, though, the presentations have brought to light specific factual information and analysis, often representing a point of view that is underrepresented at Council Meetings.

These substantive contributions to public policy debate at the Council Committee level are apparently exactly what the City Council of Atlanta wants to silence.

The rule appears to have been put forth upon the recommendation of Council President Ceasar Mitchell, according to an email obtained by APN through Open Records Act request.

In an email dated Tuesday, January 08, 2013, entitled “Consistency for Meetings and Briefings,” Mitchell emailed all Committee Chairs, stating, “We recently spoke about working to bring consistency and simplicity to the briefings and meetings of the Atlanta City Council.  I have summarized our discussion and would like recommend an approach under which the Council will conduct business during 2013.  Please give me your feedback by the end of business Wednesday so we can start the year in a consistent fashion.”

Mitchell proposed in the outline that all Committee Briefings would be open to the public; as previously reported by APN, the Briefings have indeed since been opened to the public.

Mitchell went on to propose a new public comment policy, that appears to have since been modified.  “Public comment will be consistent for all committee meetings.  For each legislative action item, public comment will be 3 minutes per person...”

The email went on to propose that a citizen would also have five minutes to make general comment at the end of the meeting, but that aspect of the proposal appears to have been scaled back to three minutes, because apparently five was too much for Sheperd and the others, even though Sheperd herself has presided over a five minute rule for three years.

Incidentally, the latest proposal to limit public comment is similar to the proposal that was at issue during the Council’s Secret Vote of 2010.

As previously reported by APN, the Council took an unrecorded vote at the Council Retreat in February 2010 while having lunch at the Georgia Aquarium, over whether to set a priority for the Committee on Council to draft a possible new public comment rule for all Committees.  The proposal was narrowly rejected, seven to eight.

The issue was obviously so controversial that the Councilmembers set out to deprive the citizens of information regarding who voted which way.  In addition, APN asked all fifteen Councilmembers for their votes, and five--Young, Wan, Shook, Sheperd, and Willis--refused to disclose.

As for that vote, we eventually learned that the seven yeas were: Young, Wan, Shook, Keisha Lance Bottoms (District 11), Sheperd, Watson, and Willis.  The eight nays were: Carla Smith (District 1), Kwanza Hall (District 2), Winslow, Natalyn Archibong (District 5), Yolanda Adrean (District 8), CT Martin (District 10), and Michael Julian Bond (Post 1-at-large).

The Council only disclosed that information after the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled against the City of Atlanta in pro se litigation brought by APN’s Editor.

In APN’s analysis, six of the co-sponsors of the current proposal supported also the proposal that was voted upon in 2010, and Cleta Winslow has switched positions, from not supporting the 2010 proposal, to now being a co-sponsor.

Meanwhile, all eyes will be on Keisha Lance Bottoms as to whether she goes along with Mitchell’s proposal; she supported the 2010 proposal but has not signed on to the current one.  Presumably, Bottoms was asked to co-sponsor the legislation and for some reason declined.

The current proposal allows for each Committee to vote, upon a motion, to grant speakers additional time, however, only on agenda items, not on general comment items.

In addition, the current proposal requires that a citizen speak at the end of the Committee Meeting during general comment time about any item on the agenda that is not an action item, for example, a presentation by an organization or a Department.  This rule is apparently designed to ensure that the citizens’ comments will be less effective because the person or group who gave the presentation will have already left the room, and because the content of the presentation will no longer be fresh in the minds of the Councilmembers or the viewing public, by the time the citizens are able to make comments related to the presentation.

Further, the proposal seeks to limit the ability of citizens to comment at Council Committees on items for which public hearings have also been held.  Such a limitation is not necessary; there is nothing legally prohibiting the Council from hearing additional comments on items that have also been addressed in public hearings, but some Councilmembers apparently want to use this tactic to further limit the ability of citizens to use the democratic process to address issues of concern to them.


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