Denver, CO

Denver council changes public comment rules

David Heitz

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The Denver City CouncilCity and County of Denver

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Denver City Council will vote Monday to change the rules for public comment periods.

Council members say the change is necessary, so more people get a chance to speak. The new rules changes prioritizing commenters for the 30-minute public comment sessions. The city schedules comment sessions at 5 p.m. Mondays before council meetings. People can speak virtually or in person.

People who never have addressed the council before will get priority under the new policy. Those who have not spoken in the past 30 days will get second priority. Finally, speakers who commented more than once every 30 days will be the lowest priority.

The Finance and Governance Committee discussed the issue Wednesday and held a public hearing. The Operations Committee first discussed the rule changes.

The Operations Committee is not always televised and does not have a public comment period. It doesn't always post agendas. City council member Candi CdeBaca said it was unfair not to allow public comment on public comment rules. So, the council moved the matter to the Finance and Governance Committee.

CdeBaca votes no

Only CdeBaca voted against the new rules during the committee meeting. The resolution likely will pass Monday without comment.

CdeBaca said when she has asked to lengthen public comment previously, other council members and staff said the public doesn't use the full 30 minutes now.

Committee chair and council member Kendra Black said there aren't many people signed up to speak some weeks. But other weeks, those who don't sign up right away get shut out. A core group of speakers usually signs up first.

Homelessness most popular topic

Public comment increasingly draws people experiencing homelessness. Several new faces shared their stories with the council.

There also are two formerly homeless residents who comment most every week. They criticize the city for its response to homelessness, such as encampment sweeps.

Besides people experiencing homelessness, public comment attracts people who despise homelessness encampments. Both sides argue passionately for the city to do something.

CdeBaca pointed out that the council's redistricting process is on an abbreviated schedule. Only allowing people to speak once every 90 days will limit how much input one person can give. Council member Amanda Sandoval agreed.

But council member Jamie Torres said the rules could be easily changed if needed. Black said the public could easily access a council member via telephone, email, Zoom or in-person meetings.

Regular commenters criticize council

Most commenters play watchdog and criticize the council. Council President Stacie Gilmore, a frequent target, often reminds commenters of the rules.

The rules are read each week at council meetings, but Gilmore has added a sentence not formally in the text. She prohibits speakers from "disparaging other people's motives" in addition to not tolerating profanity and personal attacks.

Three people spoke at the committee meeting. Regular council speaker Katie Blakey said she feels targeted by the proposal. She wanted to know why the council couldn't lengthen public comment time.

Adrienne Stefansky told the council signing up Friday to speak Monday is already a hassle. "Please ask yourself why you are trying to limit repeat engagement."

She said the council tried to pass the rule changes without comment in the Operations Committee. "It's a bit hard trying to feel like you're not trying to pull a fast one on us, even if that is not your intention."

Matthew Leak praised council member Chris Hinds, who hosts a weekly Facebook live chat. It serves as a public comment period for his constituents, who sometimes put Hinds on the spot. He answers everyone's questions. Leak suggested other council members host similar sessions.

Public comment added in 2016

Council member Paul Kashmann tried to eliminate the belief that council members want to shut out regular commenters. "For those who doubt the integrity of this proposal, it's purely to ensure that more people have an opportunity to speak to council."

Denver hasn't always allowed public comment other than at required public hearings. The city didn't televise meetings either or let people participate virtually. Kashmann said a previous council added the 30-minute session in 2016 but limited it to once a week. The council later expanded public comment to twice a week, and this council allows public comment every week.

The new rules also prohibit people from addressing the council while driving. "That has made me nervous a couple of times," said council member Amanda Sandoval.

Next week, the committee also will consider prohibiting council members from attending meetings while driving.

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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.

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