Portland councilors shot down a proposed rule change Wednesday that critics argued would make it more difficult for people to speak about issues that are not on the council agenda.

The 8-0 vote came after nearly two dozen people spoke against a rule change that would move public comment on non-agenda items from the beginning of meetings to the end of meetings, and only offer that opportunity once a month rather than at every meeting.

The council moved the open comment period from the end of the meeting to the beginning four years ago under former Mayor Ethan Strimling. Since then, it has been used by activists to raise a variety of issues, ranging from evictions by a private landlord to a policy that is being considered by a committee.

At times, the open comment period can last an hour or more, delaying public hearings on agenda items that are up for council action.

Mayor Kate Snyder said the proposal was intended to make scheduled public hearings more predictable for residents looking to influence the council’s vote, while still allowing for open public input.

“I think they’re both important,” Snyder said of the proposal that was recommended by the Rules and Reports Committee by a 3-0 vote. “For me it was about deciding which comes first.”

The council kicked that proposal, as well as other rule changes, back to the committee for further deliberation.

The move came after an hourlong public hearing, where virtually all of the speakers urged the council to preserve the status quo or expand public comment opportunities.

Opponents argued that marginalized people, like immigrants and people without homes, may not have access to email, or may not be comfortable calling councilors. They said the open comment period is a way to ensure that the council is working on issues that are important to people.

Munjoy Hill resident Martin Steingesser said it’s difficult to know whether councilors read letters or email.

“This is the only way I know I’m being heard,” Steingesser said. “Here I can speak to you, look at your faces and hear your responses. There’s nothing like it.”

Others used their time to lambaste councilors for not caring about issues affecting poor and working-class residents.

“From what I can tell, public commentary is a farce,” said Deering resident Kate Sykes, who spoke neither for nor against the proposal.

Clifford Street resident Phil Steele said people don’t believe that councilors listen during public comment, because they can’t tell if any specific testimony changed anybody’s mind.

“The reason people, including myself, share that perception is that the public testimony process as it currently exists provides us with not a shred of evidence that what we say has made a difference in any councilor’s understanding of the issue, much less whether it has affected their vote,” he said.

Several councilors pushed back against that notion, saying that listening doesn’t always lead to agreement.

City Councilor Justin Costa noted the presence of assisted-living facilities in his district and thousands of constituents, the vast majority of whom never email or attend council meetings.

“It’s my job to also think about them and remember conversations I had with them,” Costa said. “I think we are trying to do what we can to be engaging to as many people as we can.”

Councilors generally supported the impetus behind the rule change, but wanted the committee to try more creative solutions, including splitting the open comment period between the beginning and end of meetings, or setting aside a separate day to hear open comment.

“We have not yet found the right solution about how to fix that,” City Councilor Belinda Ray said. “There are a lot of creative things I think we can employ.”

Councilor Tae Chong said the council’s action demonstrated that councilors do in fact listen.

“This was an exercise in democracy and you were heard,” Chong said. “We listened to you.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.