Denver, CO

Denver considers changing public comment rules, meeting times

David Heitz
Denver City HallCity and County of Denver

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) So far, the public's had little input on proposals to change public comment at Denver City Council meetings.

The first chance for the public to speak about the proposed changes came Monday and three people spoke.

"I'm here to make public comments on public comment," said Harmony Cummings, a regular speaker at City Council meetings. She called the proposed changes "passive aggressive" and noted how the council excuses itself from responding to comments.

Council President Stacie Gilmore explains before each public comment session that council members won't respond to provide more time for residents to speak. But Cummings called the lack of response "the silent treatment."

Council members discussed the changes during the Jan. 20 operations committee meeting. Committee meetings don't include public comment.

But City Council member Candi CdeBaca aired the meeting on Facebook and constituents posted comments there saying they felt shut out.

Priority given to infrequent speakers

Council member Kendra Black proposed prioritizing speakers who haven't talked during a public comment period in at least 90 days. The city allows public comment for 30 minutes starting at 5 p.m. Mondays before City Council meetings. People can sign up and talk about anything they want.

The city's homeless problem usually makes up half of the time. Other speakers sometimes make personal attacks on council members.

In recent weeks, Gilmore has talked over speakers to remind them of the rules. She is often the target of complaints.

Critic: Council does not follow rules it already has

Week after week, certain people dominate the public comment period. That's because they sign up quickly.

But regular public comment speaker David Hagan, one of Gilmore's fiercest critics, said the city did not follow the sign-up order during a public hearing on Shotspotter gunshot detection technology.

"Certain people who wanted to speak that day couldn't because (the city) did not go in order of sign up."

Hagan also criticized the council for allowing two police officers to speak during the public hearing. They should have talked during the city staff presentation instead because their remarks took away from time from the public.

Some speakers shut out

But Black said the current comment period rules keep people from speaking for weeks at a time. The council needs to take a new approach to hear more voices, she said.

But Cummings said the new rule would "Keep people like me out. We should be encouraging people to participate. What if we expanded public comment time to one hour?"

In the past, some City Council members have said there aren't enough speakers signed up to fill an hour.

Split up council meetings

The council also is considering changing its meeting time.

Chris Herndon brought up a proposal to break up city council meetings during the operations committee meeting. He suggests conducting official business during the day with a start time of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Required public hearings would be held at night, beginning at 5, 6, or 7 p.m. Public comment would move to before or after public hearings.

The change would allow public hearings to start at a set time. Public hearings begin after the council finishes official business and starting times can vary.

CdeBaca opposes any proposal to set public comment before 5 p.m. An earlier start time would limit who could participate.

Meeting times subject of debate

"We signed up for this job knowing we would work nights," CdeBaca told her fellow council members. "I don't want to see us make a policy that's all about us."

CdeBaca said some constituents want the council to hold committee meetings at night, too.

City Council member Robin Kniech said it is impossible to please everyone about meeting times. "Middle-class workers in offices downtown prefer night meetings, but I'm not sure that's true of custodians at the airport."

It would take a council vote to change meeting times and public comment rules. Council members Debbie Ortega and Amanda Sandoval both said, "Just because we can, doesn't mean we should."

They want to see more public discussion before considering changes.

'Tit for tat' sidelines discussions

Council member Chris Hinds said the council must listen to their constituents. Having the public's comments heard is less critical if council members express their concerns, Hinds said. That's what representative government is all about.

CdeBaca opposed the changes and had a testy exchange with Gilmore. Gilmore cut CdeBaca off to allow other council members a chance to weigh in on Herndon's proposal.

When Gilmore circled back to CdeBaca, she said, "Before I was so rudely cut off …."

That prompted Gilmore to respond that "tit for that" gets the council nowhere. A Facebook commenter said Gilmore's response was classic tit for tat.

Finding new ways to give input

"Maybe we need to find a way for people to engage in a more meaningful way," CdeBaca said. She envisioned people recording comments on specific issues and posting them online.

Herndon said his proposal to split the meetings into two parts "modernizes" the council's meeting process, which hasn't changed measurably in 50 years.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best local newspapers in the country. Today, I report on Denver City Hall, homelessness and other topics for NewsBreak, much like I did in my twenties covering Newport Beach, Calif. for the Daily Pilot. I consider myself a lucky guy to still be doing what I love after so many years.

Denver, CO

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