OC Council Irons Out Public Comment Debate

OCEAN CITY – The city’s strategic planning process is coming to an end but not before the Mayor and City Council discussed challenges that have surfaced during public meetings and ways to bring governance back to a high level of decorum.

Last Friday the Mayor and City Council met to discuss final matters within the strategic planning process. About five hours into the meeting, officials reached the final section that included governance topics, such as house rules when it comes to council chambers, streamlining business by implementing a consent agenda and the process of citizen input.

First, the council brainstormed house rules or the code of conduct and civility when it comes to how council members treat each other, staff and citizens as well as how staff and citizens treat each other and the council while business is being conducted during Mayor and City Council legislative meetings and work sessions.

“The others coming into the council room, what they say and do ought to follow these as well because they set the tone by how they interact with you,” said Lyle Sumek, president of Lyle Sumek Associates, Inc., the city’s strategic planning consulting firm. “I have had some citizens come up using rather salty language and the council just lets it go. If they are in the room, they need to respect others the way you do. Use the gavel, it is not shutting them up, they are just not following your rules …”

The council began listing rules, such as accept the decisions made by the majority of the council whether in support or not, be non-accusatory, maintain a pleasant and positive attitude, respect others’ comments, respect confidentiality and leave as colleagues. The final list of house rules will be printed and expected to be abided by while in council chambers.

Currently, the Mayor and City Council’s agendas list business items individually but City Manager David Recor has suggested implementing the common practice of a consent agenda.

A consent agenda enables the council to group routine items and resolutions under one umbrella. Items in the consent package do not call for discussion before a vote and are routine, non-controversial and self-explanatory issues, such as committee and previous board meeting minutes, routine correspondence, routine revisions of a policy or updating documents.

The council was skeptical, at first, but once Sumek explained any business item under the consent agenda could be removed by a motion and vote for further discussion, the council’s concerns subsided.

“I suggest we try it and see what the batting average is,” Mayor Rick Meehan said. “If it starts to show that 75 percent of the items on the consent agenda are being taken off by the council, you can re-evaluate or determine which of those items are going to be accepted and which are not.”

However, Council members Brent Ashley and Margaret Pillas were concerned over the public missing out on the opportunity to comment or question items under the consent agenda.

Sumek explained 20 percent of the population will never be satisfied with decisions made by the Mayor and City Council, and on the other side of the spectrum there is 20 percent of the population that is positive and supportive, with the remaining 60 percent falling in between.

He added 5 percent of the non-satisfied percentage will end up driving most of the governance process, ultimately taking away from the satisfied. The key is not allowing the actions of that 5 percent to lose the support of the other 80-90 percent.

“If we bring decorum back to the council chambers, I think it will encourage that 80 percent,” Councilman Doug Cymek said.

Ashley asserted that 5 percent should still have the right to speak on consent agenda items and Council President Lloyd Martin responded most of the items that would fall under the consent agenda are recommendations made by department heads and staff.

“If you are down at that level, I would suggest that you have left the role of being a governing body,” Sumek said over the concern of having the citizens speak on simple business items. “You ought to fire him [city manager], and you ought to fire your public works director because you don’t have confidence in their ability to give you a professional recommendation.”

The majority of the council came to a consensus, except for Ashley and Pillas, to implement a consent agenda within the legislative agendas.

Next, the conversation transitioned into what is the most productive way to incorporate public comments during Mayor and City Council legislative meetings and work sessions.

Currently, the council schedules a public comment time at the conclusion of legislative meetings. There is no scheduled public comment time during work sessions, and the procedure of allowing public comment during that time, as well as randomly throughout the meetings, have come into question.

“One of the things that some of you have talked to me about that you are uncomfortable with is the times when your meetings get out of control by having citizens standing up at any time and recycling issues … there is a difference between them participating in policy deliberation versus giving input,” Sumek said. “You are the board of directors … and it is up to you deliberating and not them interjecting.”

Council Secretary Mary Knight suggested having citizens who have thoughts toward a specific agenda item to sign up to speak for five minutes during the public comment portion that will be held at the beginning of a legislative meeting, which are held bi-weekly on Monday evenings. This way the council’s discussions will not be continuously interrupted and the public’s opinions can be taken into consideration as the council is heading into deliberation.

However, public comment will be accepted during the discussion on a specific agenda item when that issue is scheduled for a public hearing.

“We are stifling the democratic process … we have conditioned them [public] on how to participate for many years. I think they are going to take this, particularly some of them, as shutting them out,” Ashley said.

The remainder of the council disagreed that the change would stifle the process but rather organizes it and encourages others to speak.

“The public needs and has the right to be heard at the public meetings, but I also think the public voted for representatives to represent them,” Councilman Dennis Dare said. “It is incumbent upon us to study the issues and weigh in to make decisions.”

The council came to a consensus, with Ashley opposed, to have citizens sign up to speak during public comments that will now be held at the beginning of the meeting and moved on to address public comments during work session, which are held bi-weekly in Tuesday afternoons.

The mayor stated that work sessions are strictly for the Mayor and City Council to discuss business, but Ashley argued the city code does not eliminate public comment during work sessions.

Recor strongly suggested allowing public comment during work sessions, but it will not be an opportunity for debate.

“In this case, it has to be agenda related. You can’t come up and talk about the temperature of the water at a work session. We are giving them a space and time to do that at the regular meetings but the work sessions are there for us to work,” Councilman Joe Mitrecic said.

The council agreed to schedule public comment at the beginning of work sessions on items that are directly related to the agenda. Topics of a public comment will be accepted at the discretion of the council president.

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