Decatur council looks to change public comment policy, discourage 'hostile, toxic environment'

Decatur council looks to change public comment policy, discourage 'hostile, toxic environment'

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DECATUR — Public comments at Decatur City Council meetings would no longer be allowed during discussion of individual agenda items under policy changes being considered Monday. 

City Manager Scot Wrighton, in a memo accompanying the proposed new policy, said changes were designed to make meetings more efficient, encourage opinions from all sides, prevent audience members from intimidating others and discourage "a hostile or toxic environment" at meetings. 

The council would continue to allow a 30-minute time period at the beginning of meetings for residents to speak, with each person limited to three minutes. Residents would also be able to address the council during study sessions, when members engage in longer discussions on a topic and do not take binding action. 

Instead of commenting during the discussion of agenda items, residents would be able to submit comments to the council in writing ahead of the meeting. People who have submitted documents could be asked to speak by the city manager or a majority of council members. 

Also under the proposed new policy language, council members and city staff would be given an opportunity to respond after public comments have been made. Residents would not have an opportunity for rebuttal. 

Current policy does not allow the council or city staff to respond to public comments. 

The new policy language also dictates that remarks "must be made with decorum and civility," and empowers the mayor to intervene if that isn't the case. 

"While the City Council wants to hear public comment from all sides of an issue," the policy says, "in order to maintain civility, the Mayor or Acting Mayor may interrupt or call out-of-order speakers who are profane, make verbal or physical threats, shout, or engage in crude and/or distasteful personal attacks."

Council members first discussed making changes to the public comment policy during a study session Sept. 23. Options discussed at the time included eliminating the public comment after agenda items, shortening the length of the time limit for comments at the beginning of the meeting or after agenda items and other measures. 

The policy changes come at a time when the council has faced intense criticism from some speakers over its 6-1 Sept. 30 vote against allowing recreational cannabis sales in Decatur. Some in recent months have alleged that the council was inappropriately influenced by former Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett, who has given tens of millions of dollars to area causes, including a $60 million drug treatment and social services campus. Buffett's private foundation in December also donated funding for a police officer position devoted to catching people driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. 

Council members have denied that they were unduly influenced by Buffett, who had opposed the legalization of recreational cannabis, but did not publicly address the council on the subject. Instead, several members said their votes were based on perspectives shared by law enforcement and medical professionals. 

(The Herald & Review's parent company, Lee Enterprises, announced Wednesday that it would buy Berkshire Hathaway's news publications for $140 million. Howard Buffett's father, Warren Buffett, is the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.)

The policy changes up for a vote on Monday also include changes to language about public contracts, as well as the city's sale and purchase of land. 

Wrighton said the former measure incorporates legal guidance from the state, while the latter reflects a policy position that the council should approve all of the city's sales or purchases of real estate, no matter their size. 


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