Negaunee council keeps comments short, sweet

NEGAUNEE – Members of the public wishing to comment at a Negaunee City Council meeting will now have three minutes to do so instead of the previously allotted five minutes.

The council voted unanimously at its meeting Thursday night to slightly revise its rules for public comment by shortening the time limit for each speaker. But it will keep in place its current policy of two periods of public comment: the first, at the beginning of the meeting, limited to items on the agenda only; and a second, unrestricted portion at the end of the meeting.

One of the other potential revisions was to both eliminate the intial public comment session and reduce the session at the end of the meeting to three minutes per speaker.

At the beginning of Thursday’s meeting, Councilman Michael Haines made a motion to modify that meeting’s agenda to include an initial public comment period. The agenda previously listed only one, at the end of the meeting. Haines said because council hadn’t yet made a decision on which revision it would choose, the city should follow current policy.

Following approval of the modified agenda, council spent more than an hour in closed session to discuss the ramifications of a recent lawsuit in which Marquette County Circuit Court ruled that the city and Mayor Keith LaCosse violated the Open Meetings Act. Judge Jennifer Mazzuchi ruled in favor of Negaunee resident Kim Klein, who was removed from the podium by a police officer at the council’s Jan. 9 meeting during a contentious public comment session.

Once back in open session, Negaunee resident and former mayor and councilman Kimme Peterson told council members that he hoped they would keep both public comment sessions, as public feedback is a useful barometer indicating how good a job city staff and council are doing.

“I know when I served in your position and the council chambers were empty, everything was chugging along down the track just fine,” he said. “…When no one was here, then you knew everything was great, but when it filled up, you knew that there was a problem.”

Peterson also had some suggestions for making potential speakers during public comment feel more comfortable, such as including the policy for public comment with the agenda at the back of the room. That policy – which is displayed in a laminated list on the podium – stipulates that topics must be germane to city operations and that comments cannot be personal attacks unrelated to job performance, among others.

“The handout here at the lecturn on the Do’s and Don’ts and the policy I think would be better suited if it was at the back table or attached to the agenda, so that people are not intimidated when they come up here to speak in front of the public,” Peterson said. “I have never had a problem with that; I guess I’ve been gifted. But a lot of people have trouble speaking in front of the public and, you know, they’re a taxpayer, they’re a resident, they should have and be afforded that same opportunity.”

City Attorney Bruce Houghton, in explaining his two revisions to council, discussed some of the history of public comment and the origins of the Open Meetings Act in Michigan. He said that in attending an academy for public officials each year while city attorney, he’s learned Negaunee’s approach to public comment is different from many other cities’.

“Negaunee is out of step with the other communities in terms of the length of time (allowed to speakers), and it’s been pointed out to us,” he said. “And we’ve had a very laid-back, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ policy, but we had opportunity to review it in some detail; and the policy, as it’s currently structured, has been approved, but by tightening it up, we can keep the meetings running orderly, make sure that people do have a chance to address agenda items and provide information to the council that they can add before they act; and also talk about anything they want at the … second public comment period.”

Nearby cities, including Ishpeming and Marquette, only have one public comment session and limit speakers to three minutes. Negaunee and Marquette townships have two sessions with three-minute limits.

“I still feel, personally, that having a public comment section at the beginning of the meeting is very important, because that’s when you can address agenda items before anything is acted on by this body,” said Haines, who made the motion to adopt the revision maintaining both sessions. “In making this (motion), I’d like to have it well understood that we’re doing – we want public comment in Negaunee, and we’ve always wanted it.”

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is zjay@miningjournal.net.