The Ottumwa Courier

July 29, 2013

Council shoots down mayor's request to extend public input

By CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — City councilmen said changing the code to give the public more time to speak at council meetings is unnecessary.

Mayor Frank Flanders requested a proposal to lengthen the time an individual is allowed to speak on an agenda item or during the public forum from three to five minutes.

In 2010, the council voted to reduce the amount of time a citizen could speak from five to three minutes. Councilman Mitch Niner suggested the policy was changed then "probably because some of us get off at five and we were still here until 9 or 9:30 at night listening to people speak."

Following the meeting, Flanders told the Courier that as elected officials, listening to the public is part of their job.

"It's what they signed up for," he said.

But there comes a time, said Councilman Jeremy Weller, when redundant public comments need to be cut short.

"If someone comes up tonight to talk and if they're making a point, we're going to let them talk," Weller said. "But if it's the third reading, and we've heard the same information two to three times already, we don't need to hear what we heard at the last two meetings for 10 minutes."

Councilman Brian Morgan agreed, noting that if someone is making a valid argument, the rule could be suspended to allow them more time to speak.

At any time during public comment, with a vote by the council, the three-minute limit can be suspended.

The problem with this option, Flanders said, is that the council could suspend the rules for some citizens and not for others.

"I understand the emotional need for people to present their case, but isn't three minutes enough?" said Councilman Bob Meyers.

No, Flanders said, sometimes three minutes isn't enough time for a citizen to go through the "necessary, important information."

"It comes down to the citizen's inalienable human right to redress their government," he said. "... by giving them the right to free speech, we're showing them we care about what they have to say.

"But it's obvious there is no consensus with this council for this change, so we'll move on."

The council did approve amendments to the city's nuisance ordinance, though they pulled one change that would have prohibited citizens from parking on their front lawns.

Morgan took issue with the parking ban, even though Health, Inspections and Solid Waste Director Jody Gates said exceptions could be made in instances of parties or snowy conditions.

"Some people don't have the money to put concrete, asphalt or brick in their yard [to create improved parking]," Morgan said. "I totally agree that some areas are bad and rutted up; there's an issue."

Wes Westmoreland asked that the council consider how the ordinance would affect citizens, including himself, as he maintains — but doesn't own — a vacant lot next to his house where his family parks cars because of a lack of space in their own yard.

"This would stop that," he said of the proposed ordinance change.

Homeowner and FedEx driver Brian Ballew agreed. He has to park his truck in his yard every day of the year for safety reasons, he said, and he moves it around so as not to destroy the yard or create an unsightly nuisance for his neighbors.

One reading remains before the ordinance is officially adopted.

The proposed changed ordinance can be found at www.cityofottumwa.org/buildingandplumbingrevisions.

— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.