Following a contentious discussion amongst city commissioners at their meeting on Monday, January 13, they finally unanimously agreed to move public comment prior to the consent agenda at commission meetings for a three-month trial period, and the public can still comment during regular agenda items.
Commissioners Brad Host and Clinton Baller had requested the move, but when it came time to move forward, they initially objected, saying that wasn't actually what they wanted. Baller passed out a resolution he had written that would leave the public comment section at the end of the meeting, and add a second 20-minute public comment section at the beginning of the meeting where citizens could ask questions and receive answers.
Commissioners Mark Nickita, on the commission for 10 years, and Rackeline Hoff, a commissioner for 18 years, both expressed dismay that the two were disregarding staff written and legally approved resolutions for a commissioner-written resolution that they were seeing for the first time.
Melissa Fairbaim, a management intern, provided an overview of public comments at public meetings, Birmingham's Rules of Procedure, the Michigan Open Meetings Act, other communities’ practices, best practices, and pros and cons. Per the state's Open Meetings Act, a public body has discretion as to when they place public comment at a meeting. While individuals can have a time limit, the overall public comment period cannot have a time limit.
Fairbairm said in addition she looked at 31 Oakland County cities as well as 15 other Michigan cities and “found that there is no consensus as to the placement of public comment. Each community placed public comment sessions at different points in their agendas based upon their unique political dynamics and cultures.”
Of those communities, 17 cities hold public comment periods in the middle of meetings, following the consent agenda but preceded new business and presentations; 14 cities place public comment at the beginning of meetings. “These cities open for public comment following introductory items such as roll call and the approval of minutes but prior to addressing the consent agenda,” she said. Ten cities, including Birmingham, place public comment at the end of meetings, while five cities offer two public comment times.
Fairbaim also recommended that the city print the guidelines for public comment, following best practices which include time limits, name and address policies, and expectations for civil conduct while speaking, with the agenda. She noted that Birmingham already follows best practices of many municipalities.
After hearing from Fairbaim, mayor Pierre Boutros informed Baller that his resolution to limit public comment at the beginning of the meeting to 20 minutes would violate the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
“This is a business meeting of the city,” said commissioner Stuart Sherman. “It's not a meeting of the public, and that's what you're suggesting. People are coming before the commission who have worked their way up through the system for months for the business of the system, people who are on the agenda. They have to come here. People with a concern can send an email, make a phone call. There are other options.”
“When considering changing a practice we've had in place for decades, I'd like to see documentation of how it would improve it,” Nickita said. “In the 10 years I've been on the commission, I haven't seen a lot of public comment, other than our give and take. We have to take care of the business of the city – it's our job.”
Hoff said she went through two years of meeting minutes, from 2016 and 2017.
“In 2016, there were five meetings with public comment, and in 2017, there were only three meetings where there were public comments,” she noted. “The issues or questions are very specific pertaining to the individuals, they're not about the overall city. When I was mayor, in 2016, everyone was very civil and very brief. Also, when someone sends an email or phone call, they get a response. They may no get the response they want – but they get a response.”
“Whether this is a business meeting or not, we are servants to the public and we need to be responsive to them,” Host countered.
Hoff said she would be willing to try a change in public comment for a limited basis, but asked how the commission would determine if it was effective or not. “What are we trying to achieve?” she asked.
Host repeatedly stated it was at the mayor's discretion, and that after an incident this summer, when former mayor Patty Bordman stopped two residents from speaking about a ballot issue, that residents had lost trust in the commission. Baller echoed that, at which point city manager Joe Valentine stated the commission has a longtime history of not commenting on lawsuits.
“This conversation is not making me comfortable,” Boutros said. “We do not make decisions because of one incident. We do not talk about lawsuits. We should talk about giving the public an opportunity to talk earlier. If this is a true statement, that we lost the public trust – is it because we had the public comment at the end of the meeting? I want to have the trial for the right reason. Is it the same people? Is it new people? It's an opinion matter because we did the research and we're doing the right thing. It's not because of what happened in one event.”
Hoff said repeatedly, “In the spirit of compromise,” she was willing to move the public comment to earlier in the meeting for a three-month trial and even made the motion, with Sherman seconding it.
Baller said, “I don't think it meets the desires of some of the commission. This is not what we wanted.”
It was reiterated that his resolution had not been cleared legally, and that a commissioner had never written a resolution, passed it out without approval from staff and had it approved by commission.
“Since this has been made in the spirit of cooperation, this has been made by a commissioner who does not think this is necessary, and seconded by a commissioner who does not think this is necessary, I hope you'll be cooperative and meet us partway,” Hoff said. At that point, all of the commissioners agreed to the trial.