The debut of the public comment period at the Sept. 14 council meeting went pretty well, members of an Overland Park City Council committee agreed. Just the same, that committee is now looking at a rule change that would turn off cameras during future comments, making them inaccessible to live stream viewers and leaving them out of the official minutes.
The council’s Finance, Administration and Economic Development Committee discussed rule changes last week that could also include an advance sign-up for speakers and perhaps moving the comments to the end of the meeting rather than the beginning, where they are now.
Changes proposed following ‘debacle’ meeting
Councilmember Fred Spears proposed the changes in response to the contentious Aug. 17 council meeting, which he characterized as a “debacle.” During that meeting numerous people talked over council members to demand answers about arrests made during a July 24 protest march. The speakers were upset when they found out that they would not have a chance to speak until the following council meeting Sept. 14.
Spears reiterated some of council members’ concerns that came up during the year-long process to write rules for the open mic period. He and other committee members worried that speakers could use the time to launch political attacks, blurt out addresses or spout incivility.
He proposed turning off the cameras because the broadcasting, “would allow some people to get a much bigger forum that would not be positive for the city.”
Councilmember Paul Lyons agreed. “People are going to want to participate in these meetings because there’s an audience that’s watching. The fact that is it broadcast, to me, generates more opportunities for people to try and exploit that.”
Councilmember Jim Kite questioned whether the city could legally leave the comments out of the public meeting record, but was told that comments are not filmed during Olathe council meetings or Blue Valley school board meetings.
There was enough consensus on the six-member committee that the idea has gone to staff for a workup. But although it hasn’t been widely discussed, the proposal is already getting some pushback.
‘a problem with transparency’ — proposed rule change meets criticism
“I find even suggesting this is embarrassing,” said Councilmember Faris Farassati. During the pandemic, people are trying to keep informed by listening to the live stream of the meeting, he said. “This is trying to cut the public from knowing what the public says.”
“If you can’t take criticism, don’t be an elected official in a democracy,” Farassati said.
Police transparency advocate Sheila Albers also had concerns. “I would be shocked and exceedingly disappointed if our city leaders made changes that create a bigger disconnect between government and the people they serve,” she said.
Albers, who has repeatedly asked the city for a more thorough explanation of the payment given the departing police officer who shot her son two years ago, said omitting public comments from the record and moving them to the end of the meeting would discourage public participation and exchange of ideas.
“Public engagement and active citizenship are the hallmark of any first-class city. Our community should be able to hear and read what other community members have to say at any public meeting,” she said in an email.
Patrick Wotruba, founding member of the social justice group The Miller Dream, called the proposal “very disappointing,” but said it will not stop his group from coming to the council meetings and posting their own video, if need be.
The Miller Dream has held several marches in Overland Park, including the one that resulted in arrests. Although that group disrupted the Aug. 17 council meeting, they generally stayed within the rules of the open mic time at the September meeting, which committee members agreed went smoothly.
“I just really don’t get the point of cutting the cameras off during public comment. To me it just shows Overland Park has a big problem with transparency,” Wotruba said.
Committee members discussed several options for changing the rules. An early sign-up might be required, though some members said they’d support offering it online or leaving a few open spaces for walk-ins.
Moving comments to the end of the meeting would also prioritize the waiting time of other people who come to speak during legally-required public hearings on planning issues. But it would also mean general commenters might have to wait hours for their say, Farassati said.
Councilmember Chris Newlin said he might support moving the comments later if the amount of time was increased. Currently the public comment period is limited to 30 minutes. But the public should be reassured that the council is trying to get things right, he said.
“This is telling the public we’re not trying to quell public comments, we’re trying to enhance it,” Newlin said. “We’re trying to make sure to do the right thing so when you come forward with an issue we’re able to advance that issue properly for you.”
Councilmember John Thompson cautioned that too much gradual tweaking of the rules could lead to more confusion. He suggested the committee take more time to see how the commenting goes.
Only one person spoke at Monday’s council meeting. She praised the council and supported the police.
The committee will discuss the rules further at its next meeting Oct. 5.