Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Right Of Public Comment Debated At City-County Council

On Monday night the content of Proposal 210 was not the issue.  The issue was how the Councillors in charge chose to shut down public comment on it.  And this time, Democrats spoke up plainly and in numbers to challenge the ban.

Paul Ogden blogged about this episode of the Council meeting over at Ogden On Politics (see "Republican Councilors Vote to Oppose Public Comment and Open Government") yesterday.

The focal point of this whole thing was the appointment of one Richard Kraft to the Board of Zoning Appeals.  At the committee meeting, Chairwoman Janice McHenry, announced that there would be no public comment taken.  Furthermore, she cited the fact that Council rules leave the decision on whether there will or will not be any public testimony up to the discretion of the Chair (see "Public Input Sacrificed For The Convenience Of Elected Officials").  To make matters just a little bit worse, the public was also barred from obtaining a copy of Mr. Kraft's bio before the meeting started.

When Prop 210 was brought forth for full Council consideration Monday night,  Councillor Angela Mansfield moved that the Council send it back to committee for the purpose of having public comment.  Councillor McHenry reiterated that it was up to the Chair and that they did not have to take public comment.  Councillor Vernon Brown stated that taking public comment was in the interest of open and transparent government.  Mansfield's motion went to a vote and failed by a vote of 12 in support and 16 against sending Prop 210 back to committee.

Those voting yea were Democrats Bateman, Brown, Evans, Gray, Lewis, B. Mahern, D. Mahern, Mansfield, Moriarty, Nytes, Oliver and Sanders.

Those voting nay were Libertarian Coleman, Republicans Cain, Cardwell, Cockrum, Day, Freeman, Hunter, Lutz, Malone, McHenry, McQuillen, Pfisterer, Rivera, Sandlin, Vaughn, and lone Democrat Minton-McNeill.

The discussion continued to revolve around the issue of allowing public comment in committee meetings.  Councillor Brian Mahern asked if they could take public comment right there and then and Council President Ryan Vaughn noted that it had not been posted for public comment therefore they could not.

Various Republican Councillors cast aspersions on the potential public commenters and said it made it difficult to find people who would want to serve.  Various Democratic Councillors noted that the Chair should be able to control the meeting if inappropriate comments were being made, but that the public just might have something important to add to the decision making process.  I think Councillor Monroe Gray had the most succinct take on it when he said "How do you know what someone is going to say, if you don't let them speak?"

I am glad that this dialog took place in the Council chambers.  It is high time that Councillors put their heads together to find a new public process that protects the feelings of appointees, but weighs more heavily the public's right to make their opinions known.  The BZAs and the MDC make extremely impactful decisions nearly every time they meet.  Those of us who represent the interests of our neighborhoods have been reluctant to speak publicly about the reappointment of members of these bodies whose decisions or interactions with remonstrators are poor, for fear of recrimination when we appear before those individuals again.  But, that self-imposed reluctance is falling by the wayside.

For myself, I hit a wall a couple of years ago and figured that certain members of the BZA could not possibly do any more harm to my area than they were already doing.  These members actually ended up in the majority that granted a variance to a homeowner in an area with more than 5 houses per acre, allowing them to park a semi at their house.  In the course of the hearing, one of these board members actually said to me, "if we make a decision today, will you stop coming down here?".  This particular person had snotty comments to make to remonstrators all the time.  I contacted the appointing bodies of these three individuals and noted that I would appear publicly and speak against their reappointment, should that ever happen.  Since none of these three people were reappointed, I did not appear.  But, I was fed up and certainly would have.

Sticking simply to the process - there must be a way to craft an open public process that meets multiple objectives.  But, until such a process is crafted, one would hope that all of the Councillors would put far more weight on the integrity of open government, validated by open public hearings on all matters that come before the Council, including appointments to Boards and Commissions.

After much discussion on everything but Mr. Kraft, Prop 210 went to a vote.  It passed by a vote of 17 to 11.

Those voting yea was Libertarian Coleman, Republicans Cain, Cardwell, Cockrum, Day, Freeman, Hunter, Lutz, Malone, McHenry, McQuillen, Pfisterer, Rivera, Sandlin, Vaughn, and Democrats B. Mahern and D. Mahern.

Those voting nay were Democrats Bateman, Brown, Evans, Gray, Lewis, Mansfield, Minton-McNeill, Moriarty, Nytes, Oliver, and Sanders.

[edited to note that Councillor Christine Scales was not present Monday night]


Paul K. Ogden said...

I'm sorry but if an appointee is deterred from serving because his or her feelings got hurt in a committee meeting, that person is obviously not fit to serve.

People would line up to serve on those positions if they opened them up to the public, and especially to the party workers who do the heavy lifting in campaigns. Instead the administration wants to appoint self-interested insiders who will rubberstamp whatever the adminstration wants.

Had Enough Indy? said...

They not only limit it to party insiders, they also limit the pool to those who can get off work in the afternoon on a regular basis.

I have suggested for years that they do a trial run of having one of the BZAs meet at night. They would then open the pool to regular people who would better reflect our community and its desires. It would also have the benefit of allowing other regular people show up to voice their opinions on variances.

Downtown Indy said...

It seems like they consume as much time avoiding public comment as they would have by taking public comment.

They surely have forgotten they work for us.

Had Enough Indy? said...

Two excellent points, DI. said...

Yes. Thank you for a vote for transparency.