Although comments at a council committee Wednesday were largely positive, committee members told about 20 people in attendance that having a regular, non-specific open comment time may not be as simple as turning on a microphone and inviting people up to speak.
The Finance, Administration and Economic Development Committee sent the idea forward Wednesday by directing city staff to study the best way to implement open mic time. But they combined it with a resolution governing a slew of other policies on how city meetings are run. The staff report will cover the whole thing and is estimated to take until November.
After that, the idea will have to go through the steps to become a part of Resolution 4992, a document that sets procedure on such things as quorums, video streaming, points of order and protocol. Committee members said Wednesday that entire resolution will be overhauled a year ahead of schedule in response to a request for the open mic time.
Overland Park is an outlier among Johnson County boards and commissions in that it does not have a time set aside for people to address the council on an issue of their choosing. The city does have public hearings, but they are always linked to a particular agenda item and they often concern tax incentives for developers. Last year the council held 29 public hearings of that sort.
Councilmember Faris Farassati asked for the addition of open comments because people have become frustrated with limits on their speaking opportunities on controversial issues.
“This is not meant to be a criticism of what’s been done so far,” he told the committee. The proposal will give people more of a voice and will show school kids that their government is willing to listen, he said.
“Let’s keep the spirit of this thing alive,” he said.
Normally, city committees do not have public comment time, but an exception was made for this meeting, which was held in the council chambers to accommodate a crowd. Thirteen speakers stepped up to voice their support.
“The city government is one form of government where we the citizens – your constituents – can really get involved in and have an impact,” said Mary Coffman.
Carol Pratt told the committee the public has been denied its voice on important issues. “I would encourage everyone on the committee and the council to remember that at one time you were not an elected representative but you were us, coming to somebody else,” she said. “Would you like your voice to be heard or would you like to be muzzled?”
The committee also heard from Sheila Albers, one of the speakers at a recent city budget hearing who was warned to keep comments strictly on the city budget. She urged the committee to recommend open comments because it promotes a “human connection” with the city. “You can’t make that human connection through emails and letters,” she said. “You do that face to face.” Albers formed an advocacy group on mental health after Overland Park police shot her suicidal son as he attempted to drive away from his home.
The speakers supporting public comments also included Kevin Walker on behalf of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce and three council candidates, Dan Osman, Steve Glentzer and Roger Tarbutton. Council candidate Holly Grummert was also in the audience, as were a few council members not on the committee.
Some committee members indicated they were ready to work out an open mic time, but they had many questions about the details. They asked staff to research how other governing bodies handle speaking time limits, sign-up sheets and whether public comment time should be extended to council committees and citizen advisory boards.
Councilmember Gina Burke drew applause when she suggested public comments be included in the minutes.
A key concern was whether the comment time would make meetings run too long. “We do not want to stifle discussion,” said committee chairman Dave White, who also jokingly suggested a time limit on council members’ comments. But he pointed out that the discussion of public discussion had taken an hour and ten minutes.
“Sometimes you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. My very first council meeting ended at 2:30 in the morning,” he said.