Portland councilors weigh limits on public comment, other rule changes

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ACity Council committee is recommending changes to how and when public comment is heard by the council and how items get placed on the agenda. 

Some of the changes in the draft amendments proposed by the Rules and Reports Committee would clarify how the council and mayor can respond when speakers violate council rules during public comment, including the rule requiring civility.

The committee’s Jan. 27 discussion was prompted by an incident at the Jan. 22 council meeting, when Janet Daigle of Congress Street directed comments specifically to Councilor Jill Duson. The rules require public comments be addressed to the presiding officer.

Proposed amendments to Portland City Council rules would limit non-agenda public comment to once a month and clarify rules about silencing speakers who violate requirements to maintain civility. (Portland Phoenix/Jordan Bailey)

Daigle claimed Duson took an action at a previous meeting “because she’s black,” and she “views me as white trash.” After being warned she was out of order, Daigle again referenced Duson’s race and the race of audience members at that meeting.

The council responded by temporarily adjourning; most councilors left the room until Daigle left the podium and returned to her seat.  

The Rules Committee discussed whether existing council rules are adequate to address situations like this, and what else may be done that is in line with First Amendment protections. The rules allow the presiding officer to limit or cut off any commentary that is “not germane or that is scurrilous, abusive, or not in accord with good order or decorum.” 

City attorney Danielle West-Chuhta recommended adding “or causing or inciting disruption preventing council from conducting its business,” to that sentence. It is a common phrase in council rules across the country that has been upheld in various courts, she said. 

The rules also allow that after a warning, a speaker who is out of order may be ejected for the remainder of the meeting. The decision about whether to allow someone to remain in a meeting if they continue to violate the rules after a warning is a matter of discretion.  West-Chuhta said that warning the person first is an important legal backup and that courts, when balancing free speech rights and council rights, often consider whether the speaker has a history of similar behavior at city meetings in the municipality. 

Mayor Kate Snyder asked what could be done if councilors and the presiding officer disagree about whether to eject someone. The committee added language to clarify that ejection would be the presiding officer’s discretion. West-Chuhta said that if councilors disagree with the mayor,  they still have the power to recess at any time, as they did Jan. 22.

The committee also reviewed the scheduling of public comments on non-agenda items, which sometimes run for hours early in meetings. A proposed amendment moves this public comment period to the end of meetings, when the council has concluded all its regular business, including second readings and public hearings on agenda items. 

At Snyder’s suggestion, the committee also proposes limiting non-agenda public comment to one meeting per month, rather than allowing comments at every meeting, with the mayor and city manager determining at which meeting it will be held based on the length of agendas. 

For items on the agenda, the committee proposes that public hearings be held on the first reading for items that have not had a hearing before a council standing committee or that involve a proposed ordinance or ordinance amendment. When the public hearing would occur would be indicated in the public notice for that item.

The committee discussed allowing for a second public hearing if the item had been delayed for a significant time between readings, or if the council makeup had changed since the first reading. But members decided that councilors should watch the video of the original public comment period, rather than requiring people to come back to the council and deliver their comments again. 

Other amendments address the way items make their way to the council agenda.

The committee recommends certain submitted items, like ordinance amendments, City Charter amendments, expenditures of $50,000 or more from the General Fund, or a budget order, should be referred to a committee by the city manager and mayor before being placed on the agenda, with a communication to the council that the referral has been made.

This would prevent items that have not been set as a council priority from “jumping the line” and reaching the council for discussion before committee review. Expenditures from special funds would still go to the full council. 

The draft amendment stipulates that the mayor and city manager would decide which committee to send the item to; if they cannot agree, it would go to the council, to either make the referral or to suspend this rule and take up the item directly. It also states that the mayor and city manager may agree to send an item directly to the council. 

Snyder said that some councilors who bring items forward might be upset that these cannot be placed directly on the full council agenda. But the referral note would be on the agenda, and the councilor would have the opportunity at that time to make a compelling case for the item to be removed from the referred items list and taken up first by the council. 

“I feel like it’s defensible,” Snyder said of the amendment, “but it might not be loved.” 

Committee members said there were a few items that came before the council over the past few years that should have been referred to committee first, and that this provision would help the council prioritize work on things that have been identified as council goals. 

Councilor Kim Cook, one of the three members of the Rules Committee, questioned if there is a way to address with consistency how items that might not be a council priority reach the council from the Historic Preservation and Planning boards. The panel suggested that the mayor and city manager communicate about what is coming up from those boards and notify the council ahead of time, but that it would not try to regulate what appointed boards and staff submit for council consideration.  

Councilor Nick Mavodones, the Rules Committee chairman, said communication between the city manager and mayor has improved since Snyder took office, and that many of these concerns can be worked out with better communication.

The third member of the committee, Councilor Belinda Ray, did not attend the Jan. 27 meeting. A first reading of the panel’s recommendations by the City Council is scheduled for Monday, Feb. 3.