MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

October 14, 2012

Rules will not limit who can speak

Committee blocks move to limit comments to city residents

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— A committee charged with reviewing and reworking rules that govern public comments during city meetings shot down a suggestion that would have limited access to Muskogee residents.

Committee members also nixed an idea to censor some speech after learning they lacked the technology needed to immediately edit profanity or other conduct some might deem offensive without delaying the cable feed.

The committee moved forward this week with revisions that could provide citizens with more opportunities to weigh in before elected officials make critical decisions.

Police Chief Rex Eskridge offered the proposal to limit comments to bona fide residents. Criticisms about Muskogee’s streets made by a Fort Gibson resident prompted the proposal, which was dismissed by other committee members.

“My concern would be we have a lot of people who come to Muskogee we would want to hear from,” said Ward IV Councilor Wayne Johnson, who spearheads the committee. “We don’t want to cut them out. The more rules you make the more challenges you could have with the First Amendment.”

City Clerk Pam Bates said numerous people pay for city services, but live outside city limits. Bates questioned how a decision could be made to exclude some non-residents without barring input from others and not run afoul of the law.

Assistant City Attorney Matthew Beese, who drafted the revised ordinance and has served as the committee’s adviser, reiterated his concerns about any possible free speech infringements. He said other than censoring profanity, any limitations other than time constraints placed upon a speaker could draw legal challenges. The issue of time limits for comments has yet to be decided.

Committee members also approved the use of detailed forms anybody who wishes to address city councilors during committee and council meetings must complete in advance. The forms will summarize the rules and provide space for the speaker to identify the topic to be addressed.

The proposed ordinance would authorize input regarding agenda items from the public while the item is being debated and before a vote is taken at committee and council meetings. Comments regarding non-agenda items would be limited to a designated period at City Council meetings.

For non-agenda items, a speaker would be able to request a short meeting with no more than four city councilors following the meeting. This provision was included as a way to avoid any perceived frustrations a speaker might have as a result of city councilors inability to respond to comments regarding an issue not listed on an agenda during an open meeting.

Other provisions most likely to be presented to the City Council for approval include mechanisms to track complaints and monitor any steps taken to resolve those problems.

“If you look at where we’re going, we are expanding opportunities for public comment at every level,” Johnson said. “I thing the good thing here is we’ll have public comment at committee meetings on agenda items, and we’ll improve what moves forward to the City Council.”

The committee plans to meet again following the committee meetings for finance and public works to work out final details of the proposed revisions.

The committees will convene beginning at 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot @muskogeephoenix.com.