Gainesville City Commission took action to change the way the public can interact with elected leaders on Thursday at a general policy committee meeting.
After a particularly rowdy meeting earlier this summer with over three hours of angry public comment and even a sit-in within its chamber, the City Commission asked its staff to help them find a way to make public meetings run more smoothly and with more civility. Staff came back with research that they conducted after studying and evaluating systems in 34 different cities. Each of these has a population of over 100,000 except for Ocala, which they included due to its proximity to Gainesville.
Separately, of the 34 cities that they studied, Gainesville City Commission and the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners are the only ones who have a system of having the emails read and sent by commissioners published on the internet every evening.
“In fact, we’ve unable to find anywhere else in the country that engages in this practice,” Lindsay Hoffman, the policy oversight administrator said. “There is no law or ordinance, including Sunshine, that requires this practice.”
The city of Jacksonville publishes only email messages transmitted to the full commission.
Commissioner David Arreola proposed many changes to the current system of both emails and public comment. The following were passed:
- Incorporating written public comment into the record
- Creating a system to acknowledge incoming email messages
- Continuing to publish constituent and commission emails
- Making changes to general public comment
- Creating a section for “early public comment”
- Creating a speaker registration system
- Creating an online contact form
- Hosting town halls and making rules for them and finally,
- Updating agenda language
It was recommended to incorporate written public comment on business agenda items into the record as written public comment. The contact form will also allow staff to help with routing and responses.
In order to reduce the amount of time that members of the public wait to speak on their item, an early public comment section will be created for those who are unable to stay for their business item to be called by the commission. It would allow people to speak about items up for vote prior to their being discussed.
After Arreola’s motion was passed, Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos proposed another five-part motion, which included looking into electronic voting, continuing to find a fair solution for the issue of civility and decorum, not allowing public comment on procedural items, no longer allowing members of the public to speak in more than one general public comment section and no longer publishing commissioner emails.
The email portal has been online for about five years and was implemented for transparency purposes.
Hayes-Santos’s motion to remove the emails from public view failed, while the other four parts passed.
Commissioner Harvey Ward said even though this email system has been in place for a while, some people are still unaware that their emails are published for the public. He proposed a disclaimer that would alert those who email them that their emails will soon be public.
“I have had people sit in my office and break down in tears when they learned that their bosses were going to be able to read the email that they sent me,” Ward said.
Those who are part of a small group of people who frequent these City Commission meetings said they were not in favor of this motion or the removal of access to these emails, but most showed their support for the motion.
Bruce Blackwell, a frequent attendee, showed his support for the motion on the floor.
“I go to commission agenda meetings for the agenda. I don’t go for public comment about anything under the sky,” Blackwell said. “I think you should delete all the public comment or if you don’t do that, have one comment period after the meeting is over.”