Council tightens rule on input

Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA) – Saturday, May 21, 2011
Author: Bruce Eggler and Michelle Krupa Staff writers

Call it the Sandra Wheeler Hester rule.

The New Orleans City Council this week adopted a comprehensive revision of its rules and regulations.

Most of the 41-page document is pretty dry stuff, dealing with matters of parliamentary procedure, council appointments, referring matters to committees and the like.

The one area that raised some controversy was the council’s desire to further tighten its already tight rules on public comment at its meetings.

The new rule limits comment on any agenda item to six minutes, with each speaker limited to three minutes, except that on zoning and other land-use issues, each side gets up to 15 minutes.

Mindful that a determined and talkative citizen such as “18-Wheeler” Hester might sign up for three minutes on a dozen or more agenda items at one meeting, the council also added a rule limiting each speaker to a total of six minutes per meeting, again excepting land-use issues, and further required that the speaker indicate at the start of the meeting how many minutes he or she wants for each item.

In fact, it has been months since the loudly loquacious Hester has attended a council meeting, though one never knows when she might show up again, and she is capable of disrupting a meeting badly enough to extend it by 30 or more minutes.

In general, though, public comment takes up far less time at council meetings than the members’ own often-rambling comments, and less than the seemingly interminable “special orders of business” the council schedules at the start of most meetings. Council members often spend the special orders heaping praise on people who have no need, or probably even desire, for such praise, or make speeches repeating platitudes they have uttered countless times before.

Two members of the public, longtime community activists Albert “Chui” Clark and George Mahdi, protested the new time limits.

Clark denounced the new rules, as he denounces almost everything the council does, as “racist” and said they are an example of how democracies become dictatorships. Mahdi told the council, “By right, there ain’t no time limit on justice,” and added, “You don’t get carte blanche on what you do.”

Councilman Jon Johnson pointed out to them that most issues coming before the council now are discussed first at committee meetings. “That’s the forum for lengthy discussion on public issues,” he said, noting that at the Legislature, the public never has an opportunity to address the full Senate or House.

There has been, however, a long tradition in the United States that the public is able to address local legislative bodies on public business.

Just don’t plan on doing it for more than six minutes a meeting.

. . . . . . .

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