Macon City Council may change public comment rules

Sounding slightly defeated, Macon City Council President Miriam Paris read aloud a name near the start of a recent council meeting.

A slender woman stepped to the podium. She had spoken to the council on several previous occasions during the past few months, and her chief complaint — a difficult-to-decipher claim that she was being held as a slave in Macon — was already old hat for council members and routine City Hall observers.

She had gotten part way through her spiel, adding a new bit about Macon promoting “lovers of the same sex,” when Paris lowered the gavel.

“I think you’re in the wrong forum,” she told the woman.

For years, residents have been allowed to sign up for time to address the council at the start of each of their semi-monthly meetings. They are given five minutes and generally wide latitude to discuss whatever is on their mind. Frequently, the same speakers show up at meeting after meeting to voice their concerns.

But the ever-repetitive critiques, which often range beyond the scope of council business, have started to grate on some council members. Officials are now in the process of looking to revise the rules that outline when and how residents may address the city’s legislative body.

Council members Erick Erickson and Nancy White have authored a resolution that would require speakers to limit their comments to items on that night’s agenda if they want to speak before the bulk of business is conducted. They would still get five minutes. If, however, they are going to talk about an item not on the agenda, their time limit would be cut to three minutes. And they would not get to speak until that night’s business has already been voted on.

The resolution is currently being considered by the council’s Rules Committee, which White chairs and Erickson is a member. The committee postponed a vote on the issue last week while officials research how other cities handle public comments. There is some concern that the rule change would not work in practice.

“I think this still leaves the door wide open for someone who has irrelevant comments,” Councilman Tom Ellington said.

Restricting speech is always a tricky prospect for governments and can generate some public controversy. The council has made similar overtures in recent years only to ultimately decide not to act. The linchpin in this case may be the council president, who in the city code is given the power to suspend “irrelevant speaking.”

“That is the safety valve for all of this,” Erickson said.

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.