SOUTH PORTLAND — After strong pushback from residents, city councilors decided Tuesday not to eliminate or shorten one of two opportunities the public has to address the council during weekly meetings.
The council did, however, eliminate workshop meetings, which have been held on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month.
Effective Feb. 1, the council will hold regular business meetings starting at 6:30 p.m. on the first four Tuesdays of every month, rather than 7 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays. A section titled Workshop Discussion will also be added to the agendas.
The amendments to the council’s standing rules were proposed by City Manager Scott Morelli to streamline meetings. He said the council asked town staff in August to look into ways to do so.
Morelli said the meeting changes will avoid agenda overload, where items have competed for time during the two workshop sessions each month. The consolidation of meetings would also allow councilors to introduce an item for a workshop and have it considered as soon as the next meeting.
Support for those changes was unanimous. But so was opposition to consolidating the two-part public comment procedure.
Citizen Discussion Part I is held at the beginning of meetings, before the council gets to public hearings and action items, and allows speakers to talk about items on or off the agenda for as long as five minutes. Part II is the same, but held at the end of council meetings.
“I believe that hearing discussion on items that are not on the Council’s agenda are secondary to the scheduled items for which other members of the public and City staff are present,” Morelli said in a memo making the case for elmination of the first public comment period.
“On many occasions, Citizen Discussion (first part) has dominated time on the Council’s agenda before Councilors could even begin hearing about the items scheduled for action,” he said.
Morelli also offered an alternative to keep Part I, but with a few caveats, such as limiting the entire period to 15 minutes and restricting anyone who speaks during Part I from addressing the council again after an agenda item is presented.
Only one person out of a dozen people spoke in favor of the amendment Tuesday; the majority opposed either change and urged the City Council to leave citizen discussion periods as they are, which allows residents to speak at either the first or last discussion period, but not both. Residents are also permitted to speak to a specific agenda item as it’s raised during the meeting.
William Laidley, of Taylor Street, said he was disappointed the council would even consider limiting citizen input, pointing out that some people either can’t get to meetings in time to speak during Part I or can’t stay late enough to speak during the latter period.
Ellen Fraser, of Breakwater Drive, said eliminating public discussion would be “the worst possible idea” and “one of the bigger mistakes” she’s ever seen the city contemplate.
John Murphy, of Willard Street, said if anything there should be more opportunity for public input.
Councilor Sue Henderson said if it came down to a decision between “efficiency” and “hearing,” the council should pick hearing.
“We couldn’t have made some of the decisions that we made in the past year if we didn’t have Part I and Part II,” Henderson said. “Citizen input is our best gift to decision-making.”
Councilors did encourage their constituents to be respectful to others who are waiting for a specific agenda item to come up when addressing the council during Citizen Discussion Part I.
“I just think we should be more courteous and maybe I’ll just keep talking to that,” Councilor Kate Lewis said.
Councilor April Caricchio proposed what she called a “time-saving measure,” where the chairperson instructs members of the public to form a line in order to speak. Previously, people were called on as they raised their hands and then made their way to the podium. The measure passed by a unanimous vote.
“April’s proposal would allow the mayor, during packed agendas, to require those wishing to speak to get in a line behind the lectern so that council hears them in rapid-fire succession, without the need to wait for several people to make their way to the microphone,” Morelli said.
Councilor Misha Pride said he was happy with the turnout for the discussion, and that citizen discussion will essentially remain unchanged.
“Tonight we heard from the citizens,” he said.