Should the public be allowed to speak at a city council meeting?
For years, the public has been given the opportunity to speak near the end of most, if not all, regular Smithville City Council meetings. However, Mayor Taft Hendrixson and City Attorney Vester Parsley, Jr. said Monday night that the council does not have to open the floor for public comments, except during a public hearing, which has been advertised. The mayor, at his discretion, may also grant a request from individuals to be included on the agenda, in advance, if they wish to speak to the board during a meeting.
Monday night as the aldermen concluded their business, Mayor Taft Hendrixson sought a motion to adjourn without asking for public comments. A move that didn't set well with three of the aldermen, especially Tonya Sullivan.
Alderman Steve White made a motion to adjourn and Alderman Cecil Burger offered a second to the motion, but when it was put to a vote, Aldermen Tonya Sullivan, Willie Thomas, and Jerry Hutchins' Sr. voted against adjourning the meeting. So for nearly twenty minutes, the meeting remained in session as the mayor and aldermen sat quietly around the meeting table with no business left to transact.
The discussion began as follows:
Mayor Hendrixson: "Since the board has nothing else, do I have a motion to adjourn?"
Alderman Sullivan: "No, I think you have to open it up to the public."
Mayor Hendrixson: "No ma'am, I don't have to."
Alderman Sullivan: "Is there some reason we're changing the format from what we normally do?"
Mayor Hendrixson: "When you open the floor, you need to probably announce, and Mr.(city) attorney you can tell me if I'm wrong on this, for a public hearing. When you open the floor, you have a public hearing. You have to advertise that you're going to have a public hearing and we haven't advertised that we're going to have a public hearing tonight on anything."
Alderman Sullivan: "I'm not sure why we're changing our format. That's all I'm asking. I wasn't aware we were changing that. I don't have anything else to add but we typically open it up to the floor. You normally give them three minutes to speak."
Mayor Hendrixson: "I think we may have been in error on that."
Alderman Sullivan: "For years?"
City Attorney Vester Parsley, Jr.: " There's no reason that we have to open the floor to anything. If people want to put something on the agenda, I think you could have a policy to allow them, at some time before the meeting, to ask to be put on the agenda, but there's absolutely no reason to open it up. It may have been a custom but there's no law that says we have to open it up to the public."
Alderman Sullivan : "We tend to want people to be involved and then we don't want to allow any opportunity."
Mayor Hendrixson: "I think from here on out, If you want on the agenda just let me know and I'll get you on the agenda. You'll be on the agenda and we won't have to have a public hearing."
Alderman Sullivan : "That's normally at your discretion."
After the nearly twenty minute stalemate, Alderman Sullivan made the following motion. " Mr. Mayor, I make a motion that we allow the public to speak. I put that in the form of a motion that they are allowed at least five minutes to speak at the end of each meeting, when properly called upon. I put that in the form of a motion. If we need to advertise for a public hearing then we need to be advertising. These meetings are advertised and I will not be a part of silencing the audience or the citizens of Smithville. It's always been our policy that you allow, through the most heated times during my year of service, you have allowed the public to speak under your tenure and I will not be a part of you silencing them for whatever reason."
Mayor Hendrixson : "I'm not silencing them. They can get on the agenda if they like."
Alderman Sullivan : "Yes sir, but normally you call for people to speak, if they like to and I'm putting that in the form of a motion at this time. I've been here for the most heated discussions in a year's time and you never silenced anyone. You allowed everybody to speak. I've stayed here to nearly eleven o'clock at night at times to hear the public. That was their prerogative and their right and we need to be listening. I don't know if there's anybody here that has anything to say, but I think it is wrong to adjourn this meeting without giving the opportunity."
Mayor Hendrixson: "I think most every meeting from the state legislature on down, if you want to speak you need to get on the agenda."
Alderman Sullivan : "I put this in the form of a motion, to allow, at the end of a meeting, the public to ask questions if they desire or to speak if they desire (for) five minutes. You (mayor) limited them to three (minutes). Roberts Rules of Order says they can have up to ten (minutes). I think five minutes would be appropriate."
Aldermen Sullivan, Thomas, and Hutchins voted in favor of the motion.
Mayor Hendrixson then asked Sullivan, since her motion passed, if it went into effect immediately or at the next meeting.
Alderman Sullivan responded, "I won't adjourn this meeting until the public has an opportunity to speak."
Mayor Hendrixson then relented saying "I'll open it this one time, but I'm going to get directions from the attorney on whether it's considered a public hearing or not, before I will do it again."
Alderman Sullivan answered, "If it turns into a public hearing and we need to advertise then that's what we need to do. We don't need to change things in the middle of the stream."
Mayor Hendrixson then turned to the audience and asked if anyone wanted to speak to the board. No one did.
The meeting was then adjourned on a 5 to 0 vote.