For the second time in recent years, the Portland City Council has changed the time for public comment about items not on its meeting agenda.
For several years, the time for that public comment – which can either yield very few comments or result in several hours’ worth of discussion – has been at 6 p.m. Additionally, those comments were frequently allowed to continue until all speakers were finished.
The amendment, which takes effect April 25, also states councilors will not take up non-agenda public comments after 11 p.m.
The council in the past has delayed non-agenda public comments until the end of its meetings, which didn’t begin until 7 p.m., which often meant speakers had to wait until much later in the night. The rules said the council would also have to vote to hear non-agenda public comments if a meeting concluded after 11 p.m., so those wishing to comment could end up waiting for hours and not have the opportunity to speak.
The council’s unanimous decision came at the end of its April 11 meeting, where Bayside resident George Rheault – who frequently spars with Mayor Kate Snyder and the councilors – said the change would hurt working-class residents who might not be able to leave work in time to participate. He also said it would be useful to keep the 5 p.m. time for getting “ministerial matters” out of the way and letting people settle in.
Rheault noted there are also councilors who struggle to make it on time at 5 p.m.
“Switching it to 5 p.m. I don’t think is anything but a disruption at this point,” he said. “And I think we’ve had enough disruptions the last few years.”
Snyder said the earlier time will create less disruption of council meetings.
But Ken Capron, who regularly calls into or attends city meetings, said “the only thing they could do of lesser significance is to not have any public comment at all.”
He said public comment is “meaningless” at the beginning and should be heard during or at the end of meetings. Like Rheault, Capron said the 5 p.m. start is hard for most working adults.
He also took issue with the three-minute limit on each public comment.
“You get your three minutes to water the roses, and that’s it,” he said. “There’s rarely any response” because councilors aren’t listening or engaged.
“For some of us, we aren’t getting calls returned from City Hall,” Capron said. “So, our only communication has become the three minutes. That’s even if you have city business to do. Council Chambers used to get full. Now, even virtually, we can’t get a sizable attendance. That says something about the quality of the communication. I really feel our government is shortchanging us with what little public participation they allow now.”
Libbytown resident Damon Yakovleff, another resident who often addresses the council during non-agenda public comment, said the switch to 5 p.m. doesn’t have much impact. As a parent of two small children, he said the time he has to address councilors is limited either way, but the 5 p.m. start works better because he can attend straight from work and then transition into family time.
“If I really wanted to address the council, it would be an inconvenience either way,” Yakovleff said, adding the 5 p.m. time is “slightly less inconvenient.”
The bigger issue, he said, is the council further limiting the amount of time it allows for public comment: 45 minutes compared with an hour.
“The purpose of this is to bring up something that’s not been brought up,” Yakovleff said. “That could be one person making a three-minute comment, but also at times a large group of people might want to make an impact on something they think the city has gotten wrong.”