Portland City Councilors are expected to vote Wednesday on a proposal to eliminate an open public comment section at the beginning of each meeting, a change that was instituted under former Mayor Ethan Strimling.

The proposal would move the open comment period back to the end of some business meetings, which is often after 10 p.m. It would also limit the topics the public can address and offer fewer opportunities to weigh in on issues that aren’t on the council’s agenda.

Strimling did not respond to an interview request Tuesday. But he panned the proposal to push back the comment period after learning about it in late January.

“Hundreds of residents over the past 4 years made use of the 6 pm public comment period to fight for workers rights, affordable housing, the environment, immigrants, our homeless, and rebuilding our schools,” Strimling said in a Jan. 29 tweet. “⁦It should not be abolished.”

The open public comment period is an opportunity for the public to speak about anything – for up to three minutes – that is not on the council’s agenda. Activists have used the comment period to advocate for a variety of issues, occasionally taking up an hour or more.

The proposal before the council would not only move that comment period back to the end of the meeting, it would also prohibit people from addressing items pending before a council subcommittee. And only one open comment period would be scheduled each month, rather than one at each meeting.

City Councilor Nicholas Mavodones, who leads the Rules and Reports Committee that is recommending the changes, did not respond to interview requests Tuesday.

Mayor Kate Snyder, who serves on the committee, said the change is intended to make it easier for the council to get through its regular business agenda, and to make it easier for people who attend a meeting to comment on items that are up for a council vote.

Snyder said she is “generally supportive” of the change because people have other means of communicating with the council.

“People do have the opportunity to get something on my radar or another councilor’s radar through email, phone calls and social media,” Snyder said. “(Open public comment) would still happen – it would happen after the work on the agenda was complete.”

The changes drew criticism from the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America, who used the open comment period to advocate for earned-paid sick leave, ranked-choice voting, progressive solutions to homelessness, asylum seekers and a “moral budget.”

“The windows in which (the) City Council will hear out Portland’s working class on the issues that impact our daily lives are too narrow as it is, and creating these limits would virtually close them,” DSA spokesman Wes Pelletier said in a statement.

The Southern Maine Workers Center also opposes the rule change, saying that it would limit access to elected officials for people who may not have computers, cell phones or communicate effectively in writing.

Center Director DrewChristopher Joy said he has “serious concerns” about the impact on working class and marginalized communities.

“I’ve been there when I have had a hearing delayed because of public comment on non-agenda items,” Joy said. “For me, it’s part of what happens. This is what participatory democracy looks like. We need to support that rather than stifle it.”

Councilors are also considering changes to public comment on agenda items.

Currently, the council only hears public comment on the night it is scheduled to vote on an item, unless a separate hearing is required. Some items, such as ordinance amendments, have a first reading, which is effectively a public notice about items to be decided at the next meeting. First readings don’t involve any council or public discussion.

City Councilor Kimberly Cook, however, is looking for a way for councilors to hear public comment further in advance of casting a vote. She proposes allowing public comment at first readings on items that have not been considered by a council subcommittee, as well as ordinances and recommendations from the Planning Board.

The change would not apply to items that have been vetted by a council subcommittee, she said, because that process involves a public hearing prior to sending it to the full council.

Cook, who serves on the rules committee, said there is a perception in the community that councilors have already made up their minds before a public hearing takes place.

“I’m not saying that’s true – I’m saying that’s a perception that’s out in the public and it feels that way,” Cook said. “It’s takes a lot of time and energy to come to a council meeting. I want everybody to be able to come and speak and feel like they’re really being heard.”

Cook said her preferred proposal would have been to simply add a public hearing in between a first reading and a council action, but other councilors were concerned that would only slow down the decision-making process.

Meanwhile, the council is also considering changes to the referral process, which is currently scattershot in terms of whether a proposal from an individual staff member or councilor first goes before the full council or to a subcommittee.

The change would require that any ordinance, ordinance amendment, council-initiated charter amendment or revision, or order authorizing an expenditure of $50,000 in general funds or more be referred to a subcommittee.

The mayor and the city manager would determine which committee would review the item, and their decision would be communicated to the full council on a public agenda. If the two disagree, the item would go before the full council.


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