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Commission moves up public comments at meetings

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published January 27, 2020

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BIRMINGHAM — If you wanted to share some thoughts with the Birmingham City Commission during one of its regular meetings, you can go ahead and skip that cup of coffee, because the public portion has been bumped up to earlier in the evening’s agenda.

At least for the time being.

The commission voted unanimously Jan. 13 to add a public comment opportunity before the consent agenda at meetings for a three-month trial period. That’s in addition to the public comment portion of the meeting at the end of the agenda, which has been the city’s format for years.

The move was prompted by Commissioners Clinton Baller and Brad Host, elected in November to replace two incumbents on the board. The two ran for their seats on the platform that they would improve transparency in official actions.

Baller spearheaded a First Amendment complaint in the U.S. Eastern District Court last summer after he was prevented from speaking during public comment about his dissent for a large public-private development project to be voted on that fall. The proposal failed at the polls, and the case was settled by a stipulation for dismissal in October.

The city manager’s intern, Melissa Fairbairn, presented her findings to the commission that evening after having been directed in weeks prior to research how comparable municipalities execute their meetings. To conduct the research, she said, she looked at the Michigan Open Meetings Act, the city’s own rules of procedure, and 31 other cities in Oakland County and some beyond.

The commission was somewhat split on the idea, with longtime veteran Commissioners Mark Nickita, Rackeline Hoff, Stuart Sherman and Mayor Pierre Boutros all explaining that they thought the current format was working fine.

“What we found is that there’s no consensus,” Fairbairn told the group. “Every city runs their meeting based on their own politics, their own community, their own dynamics.”

Of those communities surveyed, 14 have their public comment portion after introductory elements of the meetings, such as an invocation and appointments, but before the consent agenda. Ten cities, Birmingham included, host theirs at the end. Some even place theirs right in the middle, following the consent agenda but before new business.

As to whether she could relay an official recommendation on when public comments should be included in meeting agendas, Fairbairn said it was really up to the commissioners. There is a case to be made for any of the options.

“The pros for having it at the beginning are that members of the public do not have to wait several hours to speak,” she explained. “The cons are that it may delay the commission (from) attending to its business.”

Sherman stressed that the business at hand is the important part of the event.

“We’re here to do the business of the public. It’s not a meeting of the public,” he said. “If this were an open forum, that would be what you would be setting up. A workshop, for example, where the public can come if they wanted and (commissioners) could give those answers. That’s not the purpose of these meetings.”

Nickita asked how it could be measured which agenda format is more successful.

“I’d like some documentation as to how and why it would be an improvement,” he said. “I don’t recall too many times where we’ve had a significant amount of public comment. There’s been a few over the years. I don’t think it’s something that rises to the level of altering our agenda without clearly establishing we have a problem.”

To illustrate that point, Hoff said she looked back to the public comment portions of meetings in 2016-17, when she served as mayor. In 2016, she said, she noted five public comments at the end of meetings, and three in 2017. Of those, she said, the issues brought up were minor — like concerns about ongoing power outages or problematic parking spaces downtown — and didn’t result in long discussions.

“During my time, I did not recall any problems or things out of the ordinary. They were very civil and very brief,” she said. “And we always allow the public to speak after an item, which not all cities do. … It seems to be working. I haven’t seen any negatives.”

Baller, however, disagreed, and referenced his past run-ins with the commission as evidence of an issue. He presented his own resolution to add a 20-minute public comment portion to future agendas in the beginning of the evening, while keeping the portion at the end as well, in case there are speakers who can’t be accommodated during the first opportunity.

“We have a public trust issue. You may not want to believe it, but we do,” Baller told his fellow commissioners. “And this addresses it.”

Boutros said that while each speaker can be capped with a time limit, a timed public comment portion isn’t legally allowed, as it could exclude some individuals who want to participate. The commissioners agreed to direct legal counsel to look further at those rules.

Host supported Baller’s motion, arguing that he too had been restricted from speaking during public comment before he was a commissioner.

“Last year was an abomination,” Host said, noting the First Amendment suit. “Since the middle of August, I have said to you at every meeting that you should do this at the beginning, and none of you ever even said thank you.”

Commissioner Therese Longe, also newly elected to the commission last November, was split on the move, but reasoned that the low number of speakers her peers cited could serve as an argument to try moving the public comments to earlier.

“It’s possible you could look at that in a different way and say the reason there are so few comments is because they’re at the end of meetings,” she said of speakers who might leave a meeting if the agenda runs long or late into the night. “We could certainly have a trial period. It’s an unknown thing to see whether there would be more people to comment if they could do it relatively early in the evening. And if the numbers are as low as you say, I don’t think it would be a disruptive exercise.”

The commissioners continued to debate the issue, with a few jabs thrown in either direction, before a motion was made on Baller’s resolution, which was rejected in favor of an amended version the commissioners were presented with by Fairbairn earlier in the night.

Along with a three-month trial of adding an earlier public comment opportunity to the agenda, at Fairbairn’s recommendation, the commissioners agreed to add the public comment guidelines to each agenda, so participants know what they’re in for as far as when it’s appropriate to participate, how long they can speak, etc.

As for how the board will rate the results of the test, they agreed that if there is an increase in participation, the move will be deemed a success.

That, and the issues brought to the commissioners’ attention.

“What are we trying to achieve?” Hoff asked. “Are we doing this so people don’t have to stay to the end of the meeting and they can come tell us about the cats or the tree or ask a question at the beginning of the meeting? Or is what we’re trying to achieve an opportunity for people with an ax to grind a platform for dissertation?”

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