For some time, at least a few citizens have questioned the way Glen Rose City Council conducts its meetings. Specifically, those residents have asked why the council didn't allow the public to chime in during - or after - council member discussions on agenda items.
At this week's meeting - Monday, Aug. 9 - the council voted unanimously to change the policy, allowing comments to be made outside of the designated period.
While the policy has seen changes over the years, Mayor Dennis Moore revised it again after taking office in May. Moore welcomed public comments, but said citizens could only make remarks at the beginning of meetings. The chief complaint was that citizens could comment on an agenda item, but they were at times clueless as to what was actually being considered.
That point was driven home Monday when local resident Charley Thomas, who also heads up the city's 4-B tax advisory board, took the podium during the comment period, asking what the agenda item related to public comments was all about. While Thomas said he saw no need for change, he also said he had "an idea" but was not privy to the proposed changes.
"Some people may think the comments section is inadequate, but I don't agree," Thomas said, adding if the public was allowed to weigh in on discussions, a formal document needed to be drawn up, detailing the rules of conduct and order.
Agenda item 11a - placed on the agenda by Mayor Pro Tem Johnny Martin - said, "Discussion and possible action on allowing the public to make comments on agenda items when the council is addressing the item."
"To be honest, I have been uncomfortable with it for about two years," Martin said, adding the council at one time allowed public input during discussions. "I would like us to rethink this and go back to the old way of doing things."
Martin said the city could see greater meeting attendance and more involvement on important issues if they did.
As mayor, Moore said he was responsible for conducting "orderly, civil business meetings" and keeping discussions on task. He also said council members were elected to "speak for the people."
Moore attended council meetings for more than 13 years, first as an audience member and then as an elected official, and said he had witnessed meetings that were at times "chaotic" and "a downright circus."
"I have no issue with citizens speaking on the agenda," Moore said, adding he was willing to compromise and allow public input prior to each agenda item.
Restricting comments to a specific period is allowable by law and is not in violation of open meetings regulations, according to City Attorney Robert Brown.
But history shows open meetings sometimes get unruly. Council member Sandra Ramsay recalled a hot topic in April 2011, which sparked heated public debate and pitted council members against each other. She said after discussing the meeting rules for months, a new policy was approved August 2011.
Ramsay also said she felt Martin's request would turn the council's monthly business meetings into "town hall-style" meetings. She said town hall meetings encourage participation from the community, city staff and the council, but action is not typically taken. She expressed concerns over that type of meeting, saying there would need to be strict rules of decorum and other restrictions to avoid the "haggling of issues."
Ramsay also pointed out that the current council has thus far "worked congenially" as one governing body and made every effort to listen to citizens inside and outside of council chambers.
"This is the most accessible council I have ever been a part of - or observed," she said.
Council member Danny Chambers said he would be a "hypocrite" if he didn't support public participation. Prior to being elected, Chambers attended meetings and was one of the voices coming from the audience. He said hearing council comments on any given topic generally "brought more thoughts to mind."
Council member Chris Bryant agreed and said the agenda items were "not specific enough" to allow adequate citizen comments at the beginning of meetings.
Chambers suggested allowing the public to speak following council discussions on each agenda item.
"I haven't thought about that," Moore responded.
Meanwhile, Charley Thomas - sitting in the audience - abruptly sprang to his feet, loudly reasserting his opinion on public interjections. He brought the council discussion to a halt, illustrating that public input could lead to disruption and disorder.
Brown said there was not a "one size fits all" answer when it came to public comments, and the council should consider what works best for community members.
"The goal is to have a process that allows you to get the input from the public you want without the meeting getting too Helter Skelter," Brown said.
Eventually, the entire council agreed that citizens should be given the opportunity to comment after the council but should not be allowed to interject during deliberations.
Under the new meeting rules, staff will present information on an agenda item, council will discuss it and the mayor will open the floor to public input. Moore will have the discretion of closing public comments, after which time the council will sum up the issue before a motion is made and votes are issued.
The public comment section at the beginning of each meeting will remain, allowing citizens and other speakers to address concerns related to non-agenda items.
In closing the issue, Moore said he never intended to inhibit community participation, but wanted to avoid some of the "crazy" things he had previously seen in council chambers.