Eclipsing Speech in RVA

Richmond City Hall

by Jon Baliles 

Last month, City Council applied a few new stringent guardrails to public comment at Council meetings by altering their Rules of Procedure under the guise of “streamlining” meetings.

Now, I am all for free speech, but I also understand that people showing up to Council meetings to push for a ceasefire, fight world hunger, or colonize Mars (i.e., things Council can’t do anything about) takes up valuable time on issues that Council should be addressing (or trying to address). City Council is granted specific powers, and resolving world issues is (thankfully) not one of them. The business of local government is local and decidedly unsexy: trash pickup, potholes, schools, housing, public safety, transit, development, etc.

Council used to limit each public comment session at each meeting to eight speakers who sign up beforehand with the City Clerk with a brief description of their topic and are each given three minutes to speak. The new rules do not apply to people speaking to issues on the Consent Agenda or Regular Agenda or budget meetings; but lately, almost all of these eight Public Comment slots have been taken by people calling for or against issuing an official resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza, even though Council has not discussed any such resolution.

If you look at older Citizen Comment sign-up sheets that were filed before October 7, 2023, they are people who talk about drainage issues, the tree canopy, tax assessment issues, utility bills, and so on. Sure, it’s not sexy, but it’s relevant to the job of City Council, which is to oversee the operation of city government. You can make the case that eight speaking slots at each meeting are too few; for example, maybe you could have a few more at three minutes each or increase the slots to 12-15 but shorten the speaking time to two minutes. That is certainly debatable.

While the new rules changes include almost a dozen meeting-related tweaks, there are a few that stand out on the egregious scale. One new rule that borders on anti-democratic is the 90-day exile imposed on people who sign up to speak at public comment but fail to appear or don’t notify the Clerk by noon of the day they are signed up.

If a person requests to appear before Council & fails to appear or fails to notify the Clerk of an intention to cancel by 12 noon on the date of the meeting…such person shall not participate in Public Comment again until…90 days from the day…that person failed to appear.

The “intent” of that rule, according to the City Attorney, was to free up slots if a speaker doesn’t show up to speak. However, if someone hasn’t signed up beforehand, they are not allowed to speak at all; and if someone that has signed up to speak but doesn’t show up, then that spot goes unused — but it can’t be filled by someone else who didn’t notify the clerk to speak by the deadline, according to their circular reasoning.

In addition to the no-show rule, there apparently are no exceptions for things like sick kids, working overtime, natural disasters, or life getting in the way. If you don’t let them know by high noon the day of the meeting that you can’t make it, then don’t bother coming back for three months.

Athens this is not.

Perhaps even more troubling about the new rules is the one stating that speakers have to submit in advance a “detailed and complete description” that “provides the clerk with an understanding of which city agency the comments pertain to or affects.” That is scary on several levels, especially the “detailed and complete description” part.

Why on Earth do public speakers have to send their complete prepared remarks in advance? Why not just send an email or a letter and avoid the hassle of getting a parking ticket outside City Hall? Anyone who takes the time to come down to City Hall, find a place to park, sit through the minutiae, and get up to speak should be able to speak without a pre-clearance procedure. Many times, people know the topic they are coming down to talk about (a water bill, a neighborhood issue, etc.), but they don’t’ know exactly WHAT they are going to say until they get there. But they would be in violation of the new rule and thus, in violation of the “rules.”

What will happen (and it will happen) when someone submits a description and then goes off topic when they get to the podium? Will the microphone be cut off? Will they be escorted from Council Chambers? Likewise, will City Councilors be required to submit their statements on issues in writing before the meeting and before voting on them?

The rationale for the change is ostensibly so Council knows what the issue is, so they can better direct the speaker to the right person or department for help resolving the issue. But the city has actually always been pretty good at this — if you come to Council meetings to voice your concern or problem, you are almost always told or pointed to a city official or employee in chambers in order to connect and get your issue and information to resolve the problem.

The larger point is that it should never take coming to a City Council meeting — pre-submitted remarks or not — to get your issue addressed. If you have come to Council to vent and express exasperation, that means your issue has been ongoing for too long, has not been resolved, and you have had enough and want to make sure that someone will listen.

I agree that public comment slots should be reserved, if not exclusively, then generally, for people who want to talk about local issues or air it out about what government is or is not doing (and if there are only, say, five speakers on local issues, then others can speak to other issues). If someone with a $2,000 water bill can’t get answers through 311 and comes to Council to get help, they should not be turned away at the mic because someone wants to make a statement about an issue half way around the world that is not the purview of City Council’s responsibility.

City Council could choose to join in on adding its voice to issues all over the globe that need attention, but they have not; there are serious issues all over the city affecting people’s lives and families that more importantly need addressing and the specific charge of City Council is to try and fix or solve those problems. Council is right to say that they will not vote on global statement resolutions “as it is not protocol to weigh in on matters that don’t involve the city.” However, they need not restrict speech to limit the people that live here and make this city a great place from having a voice in how it is run. There is a balance here that they have yet to reach.

It is too bad (but small wonder) that public participation dropped off the map during Covid and has not returned to its formerly-robust status (except for the “NO Casino” contingent, thankfully). These new rules won’t help to encourage more participation, or make people feel that their voice matters, or that they are being heard.

And even more discouragingly, who wants to be part of the public process in planning and running our city if you are hemmed in by laws and rules that stymie your opportunity to be heard, coupled with a Mayor and Administration who never met a FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act) request they wouldn’t deny?

The old saying is that sunshine is the best disinfectant, but between these new rules and the Mayor’s FOIA mess, it seems more like City Hall is more in favor these days of an intentional eclipse of the public’s voice rather than letting the sun shine bright.

Jon Baliles is a former Richmond city councilman. Republished with permission from RVA 5×5.