No comment: Council Draws Criticism Over Public Input

The Gulfport City Council has faced questions in recent weeks about its handling of public comments during council meetings, so the Gabber contacted City Clerk Lesley DeMuth to help clarify the rules pertaining to the public’s right to address the council and items that come before it.

At the April 4 city council meeting, Justin Bloom, a representative of Suncoast Waterkeeper, a group that’s involved in legal action against the city of Gulfport, was ejected from the meeting when he attempted to address council members during public comment time. Mayor Sam Henderson cited Bloom’s status as legal counsel for Suncoast Waterkeeper as justification for not allowing him to speak. Council rules forbidding public comment about “due process considerations” supported Henderson’s decision.

At that same meeting, however, during the discussion portion of the agenda, council members addressed a memo from City Manager Jim O’Reilly that sought to schedule time during a future meeting for discussion of issues related to the city’s future zoning characteristics and design. Public comment was not permitted at this time, due to the fact that the discussion pertained only to scheduling and not a substantive look at the topic, though Henderson invited input on issues raised by the zoning characteristics and design memo during the general public comment time at the beginning of the meeting. He also stated that additional public comment about the city’s future zoning characteristics and design would be received at the April 18 meeting, when the council planned to more fully discuss the matter.

A few days later, a post on a social media page called Gulfport Matters implied that the city council broke the law by not allowing public comment on the zoning characteristics and design agenda item during the discussion portion of the agenda.

Then, at its May 2 meeting, council members were criticized for not allowing public comment on items in the consent portion of the agenda, prompting Henderson to ask City Clerk Lesley DeMuth to remind the audience of the rules regarding public comment at city council meetings.

The Gabber spoke with DeMuth about the rules, and she pointed out that they’re available online for anyone to download and read. All you have to do is visit and click on the “City Council Rules and Policies” button.

DeMuth also said that the rules are not set in stone and are open to review – and change – by the city council.

“The council reviews the rules every year after the city election,” DeMuth said. “Or they can review them anytime they choose to. But it’s our standard policy to review them once per year, after the city election, which we just recently did.”

Regarding public comment about consent agenda items, the rules are clear: comment about such items is welcome during the general public comment time at the beginning of every meeting, which occurs after the Pledge of Allegiance and roll call.

So, what constitutes a consent agenda item?

According to the council rules document, “Consent items shall include the minutes, items dealing with the appointment and resignation to boards and committees and items related to the acquisition of goods and services which have already been included in the adopted budget. Variance from this will be in situations that require adoption as required by existing resolutions or ordinances, other government agencies or the City’s purchasing guidelines. All administrative matters or acts concerning Charter Officials or other items as determined by a majority of Council shall not be placed on the Consent Agenda. Any item placed on the agenda as a consent item may be removed by a motion, second, and majority vote of the City Council. Items removed from Consent will be considered prior to New Business.”

The rules are somewhat more flexible in the case of a discussion agenda item, such as O’Reilly’s zoning characteristics and design memorandum at the April 4 meeting. The only specific action called for by that document was the scheduling of future discussion of outlined issues, although it also contained a recommendation that the first meeting “should specifically focus on the format of future meetings.”

City council members did not hold a formal vote on the item, instead agreeing verbally to revisit the matter at the April 18 meeting. “Please be here on the 18th,” Henderson said as several members of the audience – who had presumably come specifically to comment on O’Reilly’s memo – departed the council chamber. “You won’t have to wait as long” to comment, he said.

DeMuth shed some light on public comment about discussion items.

“The mayor runs the meetings, so it’s his choice whether to have public comment about discussion items during those items’ time or during the general public comment time,” she told the Gabber. “Discussion items aren’t action items; they’re just items for discussion by the council. Sometimes he opens those items up for comment during general public comment time, and sometimes he lets people talk during the specific discussion item time.

“The mayor chairs the meeting and he’s very good at telling people, ‘Hey, this is the time to talk about this.’ We usually have discussion items toward the end of the agenda and he’s always clear about when he’ll take comments about those items.”

See Council’s resolution on comments at council meetings here. 

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