OCEAN CITY – The frequency of public comment periods at city government meetings was questioned this week with one councilman wanting to create a consistent policy for all government meetings.
During a discussion on the expansion of a bus stop located on Somerset St. between Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues, a citizen asked to speak on the topic and was turned down.
Once the vote was taken on the subject, Councilman Brent Ashley interjected that the Town of Ocean City’s code states that during public meetings the public is allowed to comment.
City Solicitor Guy Ayres responded the public is allowed to speak during a reserved time at the conclusion of Mayor and City Council legislative meetings traditionally held on Monday evenings every other week. Ayres said that was sufficient enough to meet the code requirements.
There is not a reserved time for public comments during Mayor and City Council work sessions held on Tuesday afternoons every other week, although Ayres said that would also be sufficient under the charter.
“A work session is actually a council meeting so the public should have an opportunity to comment if they so desire,” Ashley said. “I would like the council to consider setting aside time at the end of a work session for the public to comment similar to Monday night meetings.”
Councilwoman Margaret Pillas asserted she didn’t feel public comments should have to be put off to the end of a meeting. She said the city should allow five minutes of speaking time per citizen during the agenda item they wish to comment on.
“Your department heads could be leaving. We are going to hold them in here until the end of the meeting, and then maybe change the vote … we would be adding hours for our department heads to sit here,” she said.
Council President Lloyd Martin acknowledged concerns over allowing adequate speaking time for the public at work sessions and asked to give him time to talk it over with City Manager David Recor before a final decision is made.
Pillas disagreed and urged Ashley to make a motion to move the thought forward, promising a second. Ashley made a motion to allow members of public to speak for five minutes on specific agenda items during work sessions.
Councilwoman Mary Knight suggested including in the motion that the request go to Recor first with his recommendation to return to the council for a final vote. Pillas refused to allow the motion to be amended and pushed for it to go to vote without the city manager’s input. Ashley agreed.
Martin and Recor have already discussed the matter, and Recor has a couple of ideas to bring before the council, including allowing citizen comments at the beginning of the meeting so that their thoughts have already been in place as the agenda items approach.
“You want to have this discussion now?,” Recor asked as the discussion was pushed upon him.
Recor reminded the council an upcoming strategic planning session was approaching on Feb. 1 and topics such as this are scheduled to be discussed. He added that there are a number of different ways to handle public comments.
“The regularly scheduled meetings of the Mayor and Council are your meetings and the agenda items aside from matters that are scheduled for public hearing are your discussion items,” he said. “When the public gets up and is allowed to interact with the council during the presentation outside of a public hearing, it can sometimes become disruptive … at the end of the meeting then there are the general comments from the public.”
Recor emphasized the word “comment”, not questions, not debate, and not dialogue. If there are questions asked, Recor takes them down and follows up, as he has done in the past.
“The whole idea of that is not to limit public participation but to ensure the smooth conduct of the government’s process,” he said.
Councilman Dennis Dare agreed there should be room for public participation during work sessions but would not support the motion on the floor.
“We need to go through the strategic planning process and then allow the council president and city manager to bring forth some suggestions,” he said.
Dare proposed allowing members of the public to sign up ahead of time to speak on an agenda item at the time it is presented, which is practiced by other municipalities.
The council voted down the motion in a 4-2-1 vote with Pillas and Ashley opposed and Joe Mitrecic abstaining.
Mayor Rick Meehan believed the intention of the motion was good but believed in Recor’s recommendation to follow through the strategic planning process to come up with a public comment concept that all seven members of the council can agree on.
Dare made a motion to have the city manager work with the council president with the input from the strategic planning meetings to enhance citizen participation during council meetings. The council voted 5-2 to approve the motion with Ashley and Pillas in opposition.