Galveston City Council unanimously rejected a proposal to eliminate public comment on non-agenda items Thursday night after a handful of residents took the microphone to criticize the measure.
In pitching the proposed ordinance, city officials had said public comment time for non-agenda items had been misused and suggested eliminating it would reduce the “drain on City Council and City staff time.”
They suggested reaching out to the council through email and social media as an alternative to speaking in person.
Asked who had brought the proposal to the agenda, City Secretary Janelle Williams said each agenda item is agreed upon by the entire council.
In the council’s morning workshop, however, Councilmember David Finklea had urged his colleagues to consider an alternative.
“I’m not in the business of trying to silence constituents who put me in office for the convenience of Council,” he said at Thursday’s evening council meeting.
Almost every chair in the council chamber was full Thursday night meeting with people waiting to comment on items on and off the agenda.
Sixteen of those took the podium to give their thoughts on the proposed abandonment of a stretch of land on Sportsman Road that had been used as a boat ramp for generations. That measure was included on the council agenda.
Five residents spoke to defend their ability to use the public comment period to talk about non-agenda items at meetings.
Two others approached the podium to talk about non-agenda items. One made a plea to increase the safety at an intersection close to his home. Another used his time to present gifts to the mayor.
Joanie Steinhaus, a Galveston resident, said she took offense to the suggestion that residents should reach out to council through email and social media as an alternative to speaking out at the meetings.
Steinhaus said she has reached out to members of council several times by email and only has ever heard back from Mayor Craig Brown and City Manager Brian Maxwell. Without hearing back from other members of council, she said she had no way of knowing if her concerns had been heard.
“Reflect on the reason you ran for City Council in the first place,” she said. “Is it to silence us?”
Carol Holloway, another resident, expressed frustration with the 80 letters written in opposition to restrictive parking on East Beach that were not read at the last council meeting. She said she does not know what happened to those letters after they were sent to the council.
“Your suggestion that emails and social media replace in-person comments doesn’t address how those emails will become part of the official record,” she said. “… If you’re going to restrict public comment, then you need to offer an alternative to in-person comments to assure us, the voting public, that our concerns are heard.”
Paul Wingstrom said he believes it is a right to be able to address council in public, even if it takes up time in the meetings.
“Even though it may not be a high priority for a city councilperson, when someone comes up here someone else may take (that issue) up and say ‘we really need to advance that,’” he said.
After hearing citizen concerns, Finklea motioned to deny the proposed ordinance revision with a second from Councilmember David Collins. The mayor supported the motion, but suggested moving comments on non-agenda items to the end of the meeting.
Councilman Collins disagreed, saying he does not want to burden people with sitting through an entire meeting to make their comments at the end.
Thursday’s discussion about Sportsman Road took nearly an hour. If public comment were pushed to the end, residents would have had to wait a significant amount of time before their chance to address council with concerns.
“Listening to the public is not a burden,” Collins said. “If we get one or two (comments) it’s not an issue time-wise. If we get 10 or 12, we’re listening to an argument we haven’t heard in public or something maybe one or two of us received but we all don’t know about or given serious consideration to. I’m here to listen to people speak on pretty much anything they want to talk about.”
The proposal was voted down 7-0, drawing applause and cheers from the audience.
Under state law, local entities are required to allow citizens to comment on agenda items, but can adopt rules that regulate the number of speakers and the length of time they are allowed to speak. Local governments can, but do not have to, allow the public to speak on non-agenda items.