Proposed modifications to public participation in Allentown City Council meetings spurred a lively and sometimes angry discussion during a council committee meeting Monday evening in a fifth floor conference room in City Hall.
With one minor change, council’s rules, intergovernmental relations and strategy committee is recommending that the full council approve a resolution containing the changes when it meets Wednesday night.
One contentious change in the proposed resolution would ask people to sign in with their name and address to speak at council meetings, but would not restrict those who do not sign in. Currently no one signs in.
Another change would allow the public to make Power Point presentations at council meetings, but people would be limited to three minutes and required to submit those presentations several days in advance for review. Hard copies of those Power Points also would be required.
The resolution also would allow public comment on proposed ordinances and resolutions when they first are introduced to council.
In the past, council did not allow comment when they first were introduced; they were assigned to committees with no discussion by council members.
And council will consider requiring that remarks made by the public at meetings should be addressed to council, not the audience. That recommendation is in response to a resident recently turning his back on council when standing before it.
All the proposed changes were approved by Julio Guridy, who is president of council and chairman of the committee, and by committee member Cynthia Mota.
Council vice president Ray O’Connell, who also serves on that committee, was absent.
The two committee members were willing to compromise only on how far in advance Power Point presentations must be submitted to the city clerk’s office for review.
It originally was proposed as eight days, but Guridy was willing to reduce that to a Friday or Monday before a Wednesday council meeting.
“We didn’t even allow Power Points before,” he said. Council has allowed a couple of them within the last year, but at least one went well over three minutes.
Only a few residents attended the committee meeting, including three who regularly attend City Council meetings and frequently question and criticize council and the city administration.
Rich Fegley, the most combative of those critics, claimed “council is basically saying ‘we want to stop all public discourse’.”
Said Guridy: “We give people more time and opportunity to speak than many other municipalities.”
Former City Council member Michael Donovan recommended that City Council delay action on some of the changes. He said people already don’t feel confident that council listens to them. “If you move on these rules, it could just exacerbate things further.”
Responded Guridy: “I don’t think the public has a problem with it. Five or six of you have a problem with it.”
On May 7, Fegley stood at the podium before City Council, but abruptly turned his back on council members and faced the public while he was talking. He said council was not respecting what he had to say.
On Monday, Guridy called that behavior uncivilized and disrespectful. “You know that’s not the way we run the meetings,” he told Fegley.
Fegley accused Guridy of creating a battlefield, saying: “If you’re going to be disrespectful, we can do that too.” Fegley even objected to Guridy referring to some of the men sitting around the conference room table as “you guys.” He said Guridy should call them “gentlemen.”
Resident Tom Hahn accused Guridy of filibustering.
Hahn complained that too many questions asked by the public go to the “I’ll-get-back-to-you committee.” He said Guridy never answers his emails.
Seeking more civility
Guridy agreed with Donovan that the overall objective of the proposed changes is “to have proper civic deliberation with a certain amount of decorum.”
Guridy often advises the people in the audience at council meetings to conduct themselves as if they were in a courtroom.