Council rejects proposal to cut public speaking time

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published January 13, 2016

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A divided vote by the Sterling Heights City Council preserved the status quo on public speaking rules after a councilman proposed to shorten the typical speaking time from seven minutes to four.

During a Jan. 5 meeting, the council voted 4-3 to reject a motion to change the city’s Governing Body Rules of Procedure in order to cut down the speaking time for public comment.

On the yes side were Mayor Michael Taylor, and Councilmen Doug Skrzyniarz and Nate Shannon. On the no side were Mayor Pro Tem Joseph Romano, and Councilwomen Barbara Ziarko, Maria Schmidt and Deanna Koski.

Had the proposal passed, it would have been the 12th amendment to the city’s Governing Body Rules of Procedure since the rules were initially adopted in 1994.

At a Dec. 15 City Council meeting, Skrzyniarz initially requested, with council’s permission, that the city draft a proposed amendment to limit public speaking time from seven minutes to four.

At the Jan. 5 meeting, Skrzyniarz said his justification for the proposed change was deciding “what is reasonable.” He explained that the current rules could allow someone to speak for seven minutes on each different agenda item during a single meeting.

“And to me, seven minutes in general is not a reasonable amount of time … in order to express one’s opinion about an issue that can very easily be done in a three-, four-minute time frame,” he said.

In addition, proponents of shortened speaking times cited a city memo that lists public speaking times from nearby large cities, school districts and the county. Listed examples included a three-minute limit for the Macomb County Board of Commissioners, the Macomb Township Board of Trustees, the Warren City Council, and the Warren Consolidated Schools and Utica Community Schools boards of education. Speakers at Clinton Township and Shelby Township  board of trustees meetings and Troy City Council meetings can speak for a maximum of five minutes, according to the memo.

According to city officials, Sterling Heights at one time had no uniform time restrictions on public speaking. That changed in 2012, when the council agreed to set a seven-minute limit.

In 2014, the council further voted to limit speaking time to three minutes in situations when many audience members want to speak and the council chair thinks that the limit is necessary to give everyone a chance. However, the chair’s judgment could be “subject to an appeal by any council member to the council,” according to the rules.

During public comment, none of the audience members who spoke supported the proposed change, and some people in the audience protested by holding up surgical masks that had pink tape crossed over the mouth area.

Sterling Heights resident Jeff Norgrove noted that council members are paid to preside over meetings, and he said he thinks that audience participation is an important part of them.

“This City Council is the first line of defense for an average Joe to talk to their city government,” he said. “We can go to the county and speak, but they don’t listen to us. We can’t go to the state. They’re not going to hear us. I can’t go to Washington and be listened to. You are our first line of defense, and I feel that you should give us the seven minutes that we are afforded.”

Resident Michael Lombardini said there was no compelling reason to change the time allowance. He also referenced the city’s slogan of “Innovating Living” in his critique of changing the time limit while looking at other communities’ rules.

“We are supposed to be leading the county, not following the county,” he said. “It’s up to them to come up, to rise up to our standards, not up to us to lower ourselves to theirs.”

Schmidt said she was comfortable keeping the speaking time at seven minutes so long as the city retains the option of shortening it to three when lots of speakers are present. If there were to be any changes, she suggested letting residents speak before nonresidents.

“It’s my personal belief that I was elected by the residents of this city to listen to them,” she said.

Taylor said he supports a system in which the council allots four minutes to a speaker, and if officials think that the speaker needs more time, the speaker could be granted permission to speak longer.

Taylor explained that the residents also have options to speak to city officials outside of council meetings. He said he has office hours and is accessible by phone, and he added that he sometimes spends an hour talking to residents after meetings.

“It’s not a matter of limiting what people say,” he said. “It’s a matter of making public business meetings more efficient, because ultimately that’s what this is — it’s a public business meeting.”

Learn more about Sterling Heights by visiting www.sterling-heights.net or by calling (586) 446-2489.

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