With hot issues on the horizon, Overland Park councilman pushing to add public comment at city meetings

Roxie Hammill - August 15, 2019 7:15 am
Ward 5 Councilman Faris Farassati says the public should have access to a standing open comment period at every council meeting.

The public isn’t getting a fair shake when it comes to speaking time at Overland Park City Council meetings, says Councilmember Faris Farassati. To remedy that, Farassati wants to add an element to council meetings that is widely used in other local jurisdictions – open mic time.

The idea will be on the agenda of the next council finance, administration and economic development meeting Aug. 21. Farassati said he hopes that meeting will also have a few minutes for the public to express thoughts about the idea.

Overland Park is a rarity among Johnson County cities in that there is no time during council meetings in which members of the public can voice their thoughts on an issue of their own choosing. The council allows comments during formal “public hearings” required under state law, but they are always restricted to whatever item is up for discussion. Usually that’s some type of development agreement or, most recently, the city budget.

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That fact was highlighted a week ago when some citizens who rose to speak during the budget public hearing were cut short by Mayor Carl Gerlach, who said their comments were not directly enough related to the budget as proposed. He told them it would be “illegal” to speak on non-related subjects or new budget ideas.

The speakers were trying to relate their concerns about the environment and a non-discrimination ordinance protecting the LGBTQ community to the city’s finances, but were told they had to stick strictly to the final budget as presented. The council had held two other public hearings earlier in the budget process.

One of the speakers on the non-discrimination ordinance, Cassandra Peters, who was one of the primary candidates running for Johnson County Community Collage board, said later she thought it was disrespectful to cut off speakers who’d come to share their views. She was especially struck by Gerlach’s warning to Sheila Albers, who asked for training for police interacting with people with mental issues. Albers founded a citizen advocacy group after her son John was shot by Overland Park police in 2018 as he drove slowly out of his driveway. Police had been responding to a call of attempted suicide.

Gerlach warned Albers to stick to the budget, but allowed her to finish her comments. Still, Peters said, “I was amazed at the lack of empathy for the mother of a teenager who was shot by the Overland Park Police Department.”

Gerlach said after that meeting that people had earlier chances to bring up budget suggestions before the budget reached its final stages. “If people want to get up and talk about things that aren’t published it’s not really fair to the rest of the people who look at our agenda and see something published,” he said.

Supporters of a non-discrimination ordinance have never had a chance to present their facts about it at the podium in Overland Park, Peters said. There was no public input session during the committee meeting where it was decided the city should support state efforts against discrimination and wait until that outcome to consider a city ordinance.

“Overland Park is going through a number of very hot topics”

Farassati said he was not happy with the way the public hearing was handled. But his idea for an open mic time goes back farther than that, he said.

“Overland Park is going through a number of very hot topics: Traffic, density, tax giveaways, planning. A number of concerns are boiling up and people have to have a podium to express their opinions,” he said.

Speakers often tell Farassati they didn’t feel they’d gotten enough time to present their side of the issue on such things as the Brookridge development, the Sorrento development at 127th and Metcalf, and for the Santa Fe Commons Park redesign.

They’ve asked him, “Why is it that the developer’s presentation is almost unlimited time and we don’t have any time to answer back?” he said.

The city could easily implement the same agenda style used in the county commission, in which public comments are welcomed at the beginning of each meeting on items that aren’t already on the agenda, Farassati said. The public is also routinely invited to weigh in on agenda items as well.

Emails and calls to council members are not a good substitute for the public mic, he added. When speakers talk at the meetings, they’re heard not only by their council member but by staff and those watching on video. That makes everyone better informed, he said.

In fact, Farassati said he’d like to see public comment time offered at planning commission and in council committees, where policies and ordinances take shape before going to a final vote before the full council.

“Nobody is going to get significantly delayed,” he said. “Nobody can tell me that five minutes at a committee and ten minutes at city council is a waste of time.”

“We have a problem with public engagement and awareness at the city of Overland Park. Fixing this problem could help the government, could help our services and would also increase satisfaction of our citizens with our operation,” he said.

“There’s absolutely no reason the people of Overland Park don’t deserve this.”

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