Members of the public who show up at Fairbanks City Council meetings to talk about what’s on their mind will now have to wait later into the evening. That’s because councilmembers voted Monday to move the citizens-comment portion of regular meetings from near the top of the agenda to near the bottom.
When Mayor Jim Matherly opened up a public hearing on the ordinance to change the order of business so that so-called citizens comments would be heard later during meetings, two of the most-vocal commenters objected.
“In my opinion, I think it’s just a move, mayor, to stifle free speech,” said Frank Turney, who attends just about every City Council meeting. He almost always offers comments about items on the agenda, or other issues that he thinks councilmembers need to think about. Turney says many members of the public won’t stick around long enough to offer comments if they can’t do so early in the meeting. And he says they won’t be there to hear other citizens’ comments.
“(It) seems to me, (that) you’d rather maybe not let the public hear what we’ve got to say at the beginning, and wait until they leave,” he said.
That’s true, says Victor Buburge another gadfly and regular contributor to citizens comments. And he pointed out that most of those who’d come to Monday’s meeting to speak had already left.
“Maybe you councilmen can wake up and take a look out here at your audience and see that the majority of people (who) came here to make comments are gone,” he said.
Buburge suggested councilmembers should impose the same sort of limits on when they can talk, and for how long, as they do for members of the public.
“Sometimes I hear some of you councilmembers just blabbering on and on and on and not sayin’ nothin’,” he said. “So maybe you can cut your end of it – cut it down.”
Councilman Jerry Cleworth said the council has struggled to determine how to balance the public’s right to comment against the need to conduct city business. He says he sympathizes with members of the public who want to speak during meetings – which often can run late into the evening.
“For those who do come for public testimony on an ordinance,” Cleworth said, “it is pretty brutal for them to wait until 10 o’clock at night, or 11 o’clock at night.”
Matherly says that’s why the ordinance is needed. Because no matter what, some of the people who come to council meetings to speak will have to wait. And he says the city should give higher priority to those who come to speak about an ordinance the council is considering, above those who just want to offer a citizens comment.
“The work of the council are the ordinances and those (agenda) items that we’re looking at,” Matherly said, “but we’ve all been here when we’ve had half-a-dozen or more ordinances. And oftentimes, those folks have to wait ‘til 9, 9:30 or 10 o’clock for the work of the city.”
Councilman Jonathan Bagwill, who along with Matherly introduced the measure, says it’s intended to preserve the rights of citizens to offer comments, but also to allow those who come to speak during public hearings on ordinances a chance to speak first.
“When we have someone who needs to be here because their testimony has been asked of them for city business or community business, we need to honor that as well,” Bagwill said.
In the end, the council approved the ordinance, 5-1, with Cleworth dissenting.