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3-Minute Limit On Public Comments Shelved By City Council, For Now

By Ted Cox | September 29, 2016 4:39pm | Updated on September 30, 2016 10:43am
 George Blakemore leaves the front table at the City Council after addressing the Rules Committee Thursday.
George Blakemore leaves the front table at the City Council after addressing the Rules Committee Thursday.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

CITY HALL — A City Council committee tabled a proposal commonly called the "George Blakemore Rules" Thursday over concerns it would have a chilling effect on public participation.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), chairman of the Rules Committee considering the matter that would limit public testimony to three minutes per commenter, said she'd take another stab at passage ahead of next week's City Council meeting. "We'll come back Wednesday morning with some kind of amendment," Harris said.

Aldermen were leery Thursday, however, of passing new restrictions on public participation, even if intended to rein in Blakemore, the 74-year-old self-proclaimed "concerned citizen" who frequently testifies at public hearings and often calls out the City Council as a "rubber stamp" and running a "dog-and-pony show."

 George Blakemore storms past aldermen after making a public comment.
George Blakemore storms past aldermen after making a public comment.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

Talking about the rules informally named after him in addressing the committee Thursday, Blakemore said, "I think they're targeted for me."

Yet Ald. Edward Burke (14th), a leading co-sponsor along with Harris, insisted there are no real provisions for public comment in the City Council's rules as they stand. His proposed resolution, he added, was meant to "codify" existing practices, "with certain caveats."

Some committee chairmen allow Blakemore to go on at length. Others impose a three-minute time limit. Still others let other public speakers go on at length, then impose a three-minute time limit on Blakemore — a practice he finds particularly galling.

Burke said his ordinance was "just to make those consistent, so that each chairman will be doing the same thing."

The rules would also call for members of the public to "refrain from use of profane language or obscene conduct" and to limit remarks to "the specific subject matter" of the item under consideration.

Several aldermen took issue with the "perception" problem that would create with members of the public, Blakemore entirely aside.

Ald. Christopher Taliaferro (29th) said making public comment at government meetings was a right, not a privilege, and he warned against impinging on that right, saying, "We cannot place more and more rules on the public to discourage participation."

"This is a rule looking for a problem," said Ald. John Arena (45th). He added that it "reinforces the perception that government doesn't want participation from its citizens."

"We're tightening rules that, again, don't need to be tightened," echoed Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). "I don't think this is a good idea to move forward on."

Waguespack added that language in the rules calling for comment not to be "irrelevant" or "repetitive" was "very subjective."

"At some point, common sense has to kick in here," countered Ald. Jason Ervin (28th). "I think these rules are common-sense rules."

"There's work to be done here," Arena said, and both he and Waguespack called for the measure to be tabled if not voted down outright.

Harris announced before opening the matter to public comment that it would be held in committee. Yet that didn't keep Blakemore from launching an 11-minute broadside on aldermen.

Blakemore urged aldermen to "put rules on yourselves," to actually listen to members of the public when they speak, not ignore them as they so often do.

"When the public sees how you act, they see you're bullying them," Blakemore said. "Check yourself before you wreck yourself."

He called for aldermen to "advocate for citizens to speak at City Council," where there's no allowance for public comment, instead of allowing it only at committee meetings.

During an earlier committee meeting, he reminded aldermen, "Dr. King says silence is betrayal," and immediately before the Rules Committee meeting he chided aldermen by saying, "Y'all hatin' on me. You don't want me to come down here," pointedly adding, "You must welcome the public and treat them with dignity and respect."

Blakemore explained his role by saying, "That's my job and all citizens' jobs, not only to vote, but to come down here and participate."

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