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Abby reconsiders limits on public comments

When citizens show up to a city council meeting to speak their minds, should they only be allowed to address issues that are on the agenda?

Members of Abbotsford’s city council grappled with that question at their latest meeting on April 21, after Ald. Dennis Kramer had previously asked that it be placed on the agenda for discussion.

Kramer said he understands why the city might want to limit public comment to what’s on the agenda, but he thinks the “vast majority” of city residents don’t understand that restriction and want to be able to speak freely about any issue.

“Right now, we’re just kind of slapping them down and saying ‘Go away,’” he said. “I don’t think that’s really a good thing for us to be doing to the residents of the city.”

Kramer said he’s in favor of setting a time limit of two minutes or so for each speaker and prohibiting people from speaking more than once on the same topic during a meeting.

However, enforcing the current restriction can give residents the impression that the council doesn’t want to hear from them directly, he said.

Ald. Lori Huther, on the other hand, wondered if it wouldn’t be better to teach people the proper way of getting a topic on the agenda by having them go through their ward representatives on the council.

Ald. Roger Weideman said he, too, likes the idea of constituents talking directly to their individual alderman if they want to get issues on the agenda.

Since October of 2018, all of Abbotsford’s council and committee agendas have made it clear that public comments are to be limited to those “pertaining to the agenda.” Prior to that, the public comments portion of the meetings did not state any restrictions.

The change was made shortly after city administrator Dan Grady was hired by the council. Grady has said residents should be going to their elected alderpersons if they have a question or want a concern addressed by the full council.

Wisconsin’s open meetings law gives councils some leeway when it comes to allowing citizens to discuss issues not on the agenda. According to the attorney general’s compliance guide, a governmental body may discuss “any matter raised by the public.”

“If a member of the public raises a subject that does not appear on the meeting notice, however, it is advisable to limit the discussion of that subject and to defer any extensive deliberation to a later meeting for which more specific notice can be given,” the guide states.

Councils and boards are also forbidden from taking formal action on any subject raised during public comment that is not already on the posted agenda.

Grady said he prefers a strict limit on discussing non-agenda items, since doing so could potentially exclude members of the public who may want to speak on the same topic.

“People need to know what you’re talking about,” he told the council. “If people can bring up anything, then the public has no idea what you’re talking about.”

Ald. Jim Weix wondered if the council could just allow open-ended comments at its committee of the whole meetings, and not the monthly council meeting held at the beginning of the month. He noted that council members normally don’t take any official action at the committee meetings anyway.

Grady said the rules would have to apply equally to both council and committee meetings. However, if the council were to allow public comment on items not on the agenda, he said the conversation could easily drift into a “gray area.”

“In order to keep things clean and not run afoul of the open meetings law, you should keep in the current way,” he said. “You can’t talk about things that aren’t on the current agenda other than saying ‘I’d like to have this on the next agenda.’” Ald. Brent Faber said a big frustration with having aldermen relay issues to the full council is that it takes “at least a month” to get it discussed. However, if there are no limits, he said the comments can get redundant and time-consuming.

“Realistically, if each person is talking for two to three minutes, and there’s 15 people here, well, that’s 45 minutes right there — and they’re all saying the same thing,” he said.

Mayor Lori Voss said it still takes time for the council to take action on something even when someone brings it up during public comment.

“It would have to go to the next agenda,” she said.

“And the council may decide they don’t even want to put it on the next agenda,” Grady added.

Kramer said it’s just simpler to allow people to talk and leave it up to the person running the meeting to make sure the discussion is limited.

Voss said the issue would be put on the council’s May 4 agenda for a possible vote on changing the policy.

Other business

_ Ald. Mason Rachu was chosen as the new council president following the April 7 election, and new committee appointments were approved for 2020-2021.

_ Grady reiterated to the council that he believes the city needs to update its 15-year-old comprehensive plan.

“The city is completely different than what anyone foresaw in 2005,” he said.

The cost of rewriting the plan will be around $30,000, Grady said, but the city may qualify for a two-thirds grant from the state and pay its $10,000 share over multiple budget years.

_ The council approved a resolution to extend the deadline for quarterly room tax payments from April 30 to July 31, to account for all lodging businesses being shut down due to COVID-19.

_ The council accepted a $5,000 bid from KLM Engineering for inspecting the city’s two water towers using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) rather than a diver to access the interior.

_ The council approved a $2,500 quote from Structures Unlimited for repairing tears in the canvas roof at the wastewater treatment plant. The city will also be filing an insurance claim, as the tears were the result of wind damage.

_ After meeting in closed session to interview candidates for city attorney, the council voted to hire Marshfield attorney Bill Gamoke, at a rate of $165 per hour. Gamoke had already been handling municipal court cases, and he will now serve as general legal counsel as well.

The previous city attorney, Alyson Dieckman, resigned from Diedrich Vanderwall to take a job at another law firm, so council members considered various proposals for legal services.