The Covington City Council has taken the position that its two monthly meetings are first and foremost business meetings, therefore, public comments will be limited to five minutes per individual or 10 minutes per group of individuals speaking on the same side of the same topic.
"This came up, and it happened again tonight, where our meeting gets derailed by very lengthy comments. So, we said the last time we came together as a body that we would try to come to a consensus about what our policy would be," Mayor Kim Carter said.
Utility rate debates dominated early portions of both the March 1 and March 15 city council meetings, and in both cases Carter told the crowd that the public comments section had to end, so the council could conduct the business portion of its agenda. The discussion on March 1 lasted about 45 minutes, and the March 15 comments section lasted longer.
However, in both cases, when Carter cut the public comments section short, residents in the audience murmured words of dissent. "She’s pushing us away," a woman said on March 1.
Residents again expressed some dissent Monday, especially when the council was considering making the limit three minutes per person and six minutes per group.
"That’s not enough time for everybody. Some people can’t explain their issues in three minutes," resident Rosie Crawford said.
In the end, the group decided the five minute per individual and 10 minute per group rule was the best choice. City Clerk Tonya Grier said Tuesday it was her understanding that 10 minutes would be given to the pro-side of an argument and 10 minutes would be given to the con-side of an argument.
Councilwoman Hawnethia Williams expressed concern that the rule might be unfairly enforced.
"We’ve got to be fair to everybody. Some people (might be) allowed more time because we know them and like them, they have a certain position in the community and we let them go on and on … not going to be fair to the person who is not as well know and not as favored," she said. "If not, this is going to backfire on all us and is not going to look good."
The council discussed whether to use a clock, stopwatch, bell or other device but will decide before the next meeting. Grier said Tuesday she was looking into getting a stoplight timer, that would flash yellow when time was running out and red when time was up.
Councilman Keith Dalton originally proposed the three-minute limit, but he said regardless of the time limit, the key is to let the resident speak uninterrupted for his time limit. Then the resident would not be allowed to speak further unless a council member asks a question.
"Let them speak, because when you get into a debate the clock goes out the window, and we get back to 25 and 30 minutes," Dalton said. "This is not the proper forum to debate."
The council distinguished between people who show up at the meeting and want to speak about something not on the agenda, and those who sign up to be on the agenda ahead of time. There will be no time limit for people who have signed up to be on the agenda.
"If someone is presenting their facts and they have sent in documentation and asked to be on the agenda, I’m not inclined to cut them off at five minutes," Carter said.
Resident Virginia Hoffman spoke about an issue in her neighborhood during the public comments section, which lasted about 20 minutes.
The council chose not to distinguish between city residents and non-residents, because many non-residents pay utilities and do business in Covington.
The council voted 3-2, with Williams and Councilwoman Ocie Franklin opposing the time limit. The change will go into effect at the April 19 meeting.
Franklin said she opposed because she felt more discussion was needed. Williams voted against the time limit because she said "I see avenues for unfairness. I see unfairness all the way around."
Monday’s night agenda had a total of 36 items and lasted from 6:30 p.m. until after 9 p.m. The Covington council has two public comments section, one before the meeting and one after the meeting; the only city that offers two opportunities. Carter has said previously several times that she wants to give citizens as much opportunity to speak as possible; however, in recent weeks she said she felt residents had been abusing this right.
Carter said Tuesday that residents can consider setting up a meeting with City Manager Steve Horton or council members at other times during the week; that way specific issues don’t take up everybody’s time.
On a related note, some progress came out of the utility debates, as a Utility Resource Committee was formed Monday night. The committee will be composed of two residents, two council members and two city employees and will look for ways to lower utility usage and rates and look for additional utility assistance.
Williams and Dalton, Utility Director Bill Meecham and Grant Writer Randy Conner and Crawford, a resident in the western half of the city, and a resident from the eastern part of the city, who will be chosen by the east ward council members will comprise the committee. .