Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

July 3, 2014

Council debates public comment restrictions

TONY HUFFMAN
Daily News

---- — TONY HUFFMAN

Daily News

With some concerned that the current public comment protocol is too restrictive, Effingham City Council commissioners disputed the practice at this week’s meeting.

The current protocol requires citizens to obtain a speaker card by 12 p.m. on the day of the city council meeting.

They must also inform city administration of their comment topic, and there is a 5-minute time limit on comments during the meeting.

“Making people go to city hall during the day and get a speaker’s card isn’t fair,” said Commissioner Brian Milleville, noting that giving notice to the subject is also unfair. “You are tipping us off to what they are going to talk about. If they want to come in and address the body, they should be able to address the body.”

Milleville informed the board that after attending other area meetings, he feels the procedure needs to be reworked.

“The (Effingham) school board and county board seem to be very open to discussion,” said Milleville. “At the beginning of the meeting, those who signed in right before the meeting are asked what topic they would like to speak about.”

Both Milleville and Commissioner Matt Hirtzel expressed their interest in relaxing the regulations on those who want to address the board.

“Why couldn’t we say a five minute time limit might be implemented?” said Hirtzel.

The protocol is to create consistency among conversations at council meetings, said City Attorney Tracy Willenborg.

“The problem with not having a policy is that it opens the city up to litigation,” she said, adding that giving people different amounts of time could be considered limiting one’s speech.

In addition to needing consistency, Mayor Merv Gillenwater defended the reasoning behind having constituents sharing their discussion topic.

“It’s not that we don’t want to be caught off guard,” said Gillenwater. “We actually want to resolve the question they have. It gives us a little opportunity to research the issue before they come in.”

The policy, reviewed and passed by the council in previous years, was based off of legal cases dealing with public participation, said Willenborg.

She reiterated that having inconsistent testimony to the council could lead to litigation.

“Are we opening ourselves up to that now?” asked Milleville. “At what point do we run afoul with the Open Meetings Act?”

Willenborg said emphatically the council isn’t going against the Open Meetings Act, which regulates various procedures at governmental meetings.

“You aren’t doing that because it (the Open Meetings Act) says you have to allow public comment, but you can place reasonable restrictions on it,” she said.

The restrictions help limit meeting times and redundant testimony by the public, said Gillenwater.

However, Gillenwater said he would consider revisions to the existing policy.

“Maybe we need to look at this,” he said.

Milleville volunteered to write up a proposal for changes to the existing protocol and will bring that revision before the board a a later date.

In other news, the council:

• Approved a partnership between the City of Effingham, Lake Land College and Effingham School District to provide $120,000 to purchase lab equipment, which would train high school students and adults in the manufacturing fields.

Effingham Unit 40 is making a dual-credit Manufacturing Skills class available in the upcoming school year that will provide instruction in robotics, pneumatics, electronics and hydraulics to EHS Seniors.

The council heard from LLC Vice President of Academic Resources Jim Hull at last month’s meeting that area manufacturers are looking to hire high school graduates with basic manufacturing skills.

LLC is providing the curriculum and Unit 40 is providing the instructor.

• Approved a $75,000 job creation grant for Versatech, which will help facilitate the creation of 20 jobs in Effingham. Owner Joe Forbes went before the council at a recent meeting and provided information about the rapid growth at the auto parts manufacturing company.

The company opened in 2008 and will have over 100 employees after the additional 20 are added.

According to Forbes, the grant will assist the company in expanding the infrastructure of the company’s operation.

• Approved the appointment of Sasha Althoff to the position of Economic Development Specialist for the City of Effingham. Althoff will assist Economic Development Director Todd Hull in developing business within the City of Effingham.

Tony Huffman can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 138, at tony.huffman@effinghamdailynews.com or on Twitter @EDNthuffman.