Evanston aldermen tonight are scheduled to consider a proposal to move public comment on non-agenda items to the end of City Council meetings.
The council now allocates up to 45 minutes early in each of its cablecast meetings for citizen comment — whether on matters that the council is scheduled to vote on that evening or any other city-government-related subject the speaker wants to talk about.
The proposed change is a result of a discussion at a special council meeting July 29 that was meant to focus on developing a vision for the city’s future.
During that session, Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, said all the public comment early in council meetings, combined with special presentations from city staff, mean that “the meeting just goes on and on.”
“By the time we get to city business, people are too tired, they have to go to the bathroom, they’re just not in the right frame of mind to conduct city business,” Rainey said.
“We had eight pages of agenda items” at the last meeting, Rainey added. “Some were very serious items, and many that didn’t get discussed should have been discussed.”
“I’m not opposed to citizen comment,” Rainey said, “but our meetings don’t start until too late.”
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, said, “Citizen comment should be tweaked.”
“When we have hot-button issues, people show up not completely informed and many comments are not relevant to what’s happening,” Burrus said. “Maybe we need to structure the meeting in a way to get information out about each issue before citizen comment starts about it.”
Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, said the citizen comment process is much improved over what it used to be.
“Now the mayor does call on [City Manager] Wally [Bobkiewicz] to correct things, much more so than in the past,” Wynne said.
“And,” she added, “the first four years I was on the council there was no time limit on citizen comment — we frequently didn’t start the regular meeting until after 11 p.m.”
Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, suggested encouraging people to offer their comments during council committee meetings. “That’s where we can give them more time to speak” and really discuss issues, Holmes said.
Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, said people come to speak at City Council meetings for a lot of different reasons. “Some just want to be heard, some want to influence our discussion, but many don’t know what is effective advocacy.”
“That requires being informed yourself,” Grover added, “We know when you don’t know a lot.”
Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said, “I think all of us believe that citizen comment is tremendously important. Yes, some people are not as informed as they need to be to be effective advocates, but there are a lot of citizens who know more than we do.”
Bobkiewicz said the council had discussed splitting public comment between agenda and non-agenda items in the past, but rejected that.
He said he has proposed that the council dispense with reading aloud the consent agenda at each meeting. With the full city council packet now available online, Bobkiewicz suggested, people can easily learn what’s being voted on.
But Rainey, who as the council’s longest-serving member gets the job of reading the consent agenda, said it’s important to say out loud what’s being voted on, and said the reading “only takes about 10 minutes.”
The proposal up for discussion at tonight’s 6 p.m. Rules Committee meeting would keep comments on agenda items at the start of council meetings, but move comments on non-agenda items to near the end — just before aldermen make their announcements during the call of the wards.