June 16, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Council reviews public forum changes; data shows over 1/3 repeat speakers

7 min read
City councilors learned that the 90-minute limit affected just one public forum in 2022 and 2023. The Monday before a special meeting on the middle housing ordinance, 20 persons waited but did not get a chance to speak.

The city council on Sept. 11 officially reduced speaking time at the public forum from three minutes to two and one-half minutes per person and limited the forum overall to 90 minutes. On Sept. 27, the council took the first step towards applying the same per-person limits at public hearings. The council also saw data on frequent speakers.

City Recorder Katie LaSala (Sept. 27, 2023): There were two topics at that 7/19/2023 work session that generated a lot of interest from councilors in revisiting this fall. One is related to council’s operating agreements, specifically public forum participation.

[00:00:40] City Recorder Katie LaSala (July 19, 2023): It may be helpful for this discussion to focus on the changes that will align council’s operating agreements with the current practices.

[00:00:49] Section 1.05 Public Forum: Proposed language changes would incorporate the current testimony sign-up and randomization process that we’ve been utilizing. And then it would finalize the length of the testimony for the public forum. Right now, we have that at 90 minutes. And that was based on a previously approved pilot.

[00:01:12] Councilor Mike Clark (July 19, 2023): Addressing the repetitive nature of several people who speak at public forum: Since we keep a database of everyone who speaks, every time the staff randomizes it, we have a list of who’s speaking. And I would propose that we limit participation in public forum only (not hearings, not anything else, just public forum, Monday nights) in an effort to limit the repetitive nature of folks who speak at every one of them, all the time, 24 meetings a year, and say, to my way of thinking, virtually the same thing.

[00:01:53] This is not directed at any topic or anybody saying anything specifically, or their comment’s content in any way, so much as it seems to me that we often hear repeated endless number of times from similar people. And I don’t know the value of that to council, when we’re hearing the same thing over and over and over again.

[00:02:20] Councilor Alan Zelenka (July 19, 2023): Yeah, I expressed similar concerns of what Mike did about hearing the same thing over and over again. The purpose of the public forum is to inform the council of issues and to propose solutions. When we hear the same person say the same thing over and over again, that defeats the purpose, and so that’s what we were trying to get at before.

[00:02:45] I made the proposal to prioritize speakers that have not recently addressed the council. So if you had recently addressed the council, you fall to the bottom of the list. We run out of time, we run out of time. So that was a different way of dealing with the problem that Mike was talking about and that I concur with.

[00:03:09] Councilor Randy Groves (July 19, 2023): I agree that there needs to be some level of limitation, because we have people that don’t get a chance to speak, and their number isn’t high enough to fit within the 90 minutes when we’re still hearing from people that we hear from virtually every time we have a public forum, saying the same thing, the same way… I could shut my eyes and basically recite it for them.

[00:03:30] So what I would be interested in seeing is some way to manage how many times you can speak about the same subject. I would not want to limit people to a hard number because, you know, if it’s one issue for a couple of meetings, and then they switched to another one, I mean, I still think having that opportunity to raise their voice is important.

[00:03:52] At the same time, when it gets to the point where they are excluding others because they know the system, I think that that creates a problem with access. And I do remember some public forums where we ran out of time and not everybody got to raise their voice.

[00:04:06] So, if we want to talk about access, let’s talk about access. And access means getting the most people we can before us that we listen to as possible.

[00:04:17] And again, I’m not picking out any topic, because I think it’s on all sides. Maybe it doesn’t happen that frequently, but when it does happen, it’s very frustrating to those who have taken the time to sign up and wait through the full 90 minutes and not get their day to be heard. So that’s where I’m coming from.

[00:04:37] Again, this is not topic-specific. This is just in general looking at how do we make this system as fair and accessible for the many.

[00:04:50] Councilor Jennifer Yeh (July 19, 2023): I was not in favor of reducing it to 90 minutes. I had a lot of concerns about that. But to be perfectly honest, I think that things have gotten better. I don’t think it’ll ever be perfect. That’s not my goal. I think that’s unrealistic. I think we have to take some of the frustrations and inconveniences with the whole concept of asking for engagement. That’s just what it comes with. And so I really feel like the changes that we made did make things better to an extent that I’m satisfied with the few things that I have to deal with that are frustrating.

[00:05:23] John Q: The council continued its discussion on Sept. 27.

[00:05:29] City Recorder Katie LaSala (Sept. 27, 2023): I just want to note that over the past few years, council has actually made quite a few changes to their public forum process, either through pilots or formal adoption of changes. And so to help council understand how those changes have been working, I have public forum data from 2022 and 2023 to share.

[00:05:49] So, first, we’re going to start off with the public forum participation data. In 2022, there were 20 public forums for an average of 25.8 speakers per forum. And in 2023, we’ve had, as of August, 13 public forums with the average of 16 speakers per public forum.

[00:06:10] John Q: She said more than one-third of all public forum comments come from people who have already addressed the council. Through August 2023, 70 more comments came from the group of 138 unique persons; in 2022, 188 more comments from among 328 speakers.

[00:06:29] City Recorder Katie LaSala (Sept. 27, 2023): So, the other piece of information we thought would be useful for council as part of this conversation is to kind of delve into the 90-minute time limit.

[00:06:38] If you do the math, two and a half minutes at 90 (minutes) would be 36 speakers. But if you take into account the fact that we allow for five seconds of overage time for people to finish up their thought, transition time between speakers, and the occasional technical issue, it’s actually a little bit less than that, that we can guarantee that somebody can speak.

[00:06:58] When we hit 34, with every sign-up after that, it becomes a little less likely that the individual would get to speak.

[00:07:07] So, within the last year and a half, we had six instances where the speaker list was more than 34 people. And the one time that we did reach the 90-minute limit, the number of speakers that did not get to testify was 20.

[00:07:21] So because I’m sure someone will ask the question: That one time was the Monday before council’s special meeting to consider the middle housing ordinance. So, we had quite a few people show up for the public forum before that ordinance was adopted to talk about it.

[00:07:40] John Q: On Sept. 27, the council took the first step towards adopting similar limits for public hearings.

[00:07:47] Councilor Emily Semple (Sept. 27, 2023): I would like to see public hearings be two and a half minutes because we don’t have a 90-minute limit. I’m not really interested in the 90-minute limit, but we would get more people in if we had two and a half minutes. And I think the two and a half minutes has worked really well for forum. I’ve been able to get the gist of what everybody’s been saying.

[00:08:13] Councilor Alan Zelenka (Sept. 27, 2023): I would support a motion to have two and a half minutes at public hearings as well. So, if you want to bring that back, I would second it, Emily.

[00:08:20] Councilor Emily Semple: Can I just do it now and get it over with? (Yes. Yeah. That would be my recommendation.) I make a motion that we change the public hearing length of testimony to two and a half minutes instead of three. (Second.)

[00:08:35] John Q: That motion passed. The council also voted to restrict community volunteers to one board or commission at a time, although they can continue to apply for more than one. Those resolutions will appear on a future consent agenda.

The city provided the spreadsheet containing public forum speakers for all of 2022 and the first half of 2023, along with a list of the 20 persons who signed up but were not able to speak on May 23, 2022. Those records show that the city’s top public forum speaker appeared at 24 of the 33 sessions.

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