Paonia Town Council made a significant change to public comments during its notoriously long board meetings. The new change came about during the Aug. 10 meeting when the board agreed to amend the agenda regarding public input for the Aug. 24 meeting.
Prior to the change, citizens were allowed to offer public comment on each and every agendized item following comments and discussion by the board. The liberal public input is in stark contrast to neighboring Hotchkiss which limits public comment to five minutes per speaker typically between old business and new business. Discussion on agendized items is the sole privilege of the citizen elected board.
At the county level, the Delta County Board of County Commissioner meetings allow for public comment during the beginning of the meeting and while there are no set time limits, the board doesn’t allow for public comment during agendized items. Discussion on ensuing agenda items remain the sole domain of the three member board.
Paonia Mayor Mary Bachran said the goal of the new public comment policy is an attempt to help the meetings run smoother.
In recent months, town meetings have averaged up to four hours or more in length. At times, contentious public input has resulted in heated disagreements between the mayor and citizens.
“We wanted to see if there was a better way to do things. In all the best practices that I’ve run across it is recommended that you have a public comment at the beginning of the meeting and then you run the meeting but the board wasn’t happy with that. They wanted some kind of more intense public comment but not that they could comment on every subject, so this was a compromise,” Bachran said.
The mayor said members of the public who attended the Aug. 10 meeting were aware of the changes while other citizens found out from the Aug. 24 meeting packet. Despite some citizen push back on the new strategy, Bachran seemed pleased with the first trial run.
“I think it went well at the last meeting. Some people complained that they didn’t have enough information but I think it made things run more smoothly. I know that if we would have done a continued public comment during the Bill Brunner discussion (citizen’s initiative) that meeting would have been at least an hour longer,” Bachran said.
In a comment on the town’s YouTube page, where videos of town meetings are posted, citizen Pamela Jackson voiced her opposition to the recent change.
“Asking for public comments ahead of the topics being addressed by the board leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, many times, when people take the time to come to a meeting, they already know what they want to discuss, but that (they) do not know how the board is viewing the topic. Waiting until after the subject has been broached seems like a way better time for citizens to address the board,” Jackson stated.
During the Aug. 24 meeting, the first public comment time came prior to staff reports, treasurer’s report, disbursements and the consent agenda.
The second public comment was allowed before the board tackled unfinished business which included two ordinances. The first ordinance was on approving a reduction in the distance for on-premises liquor establishments and schools. The second ordinance dealt with amendments to the town code on the purchase and possession of marijuana. Both ordinances passed without any prior public comments.
The third chance for public input came prior to any board discussion on new business which included discussion and/or action on the Zoning Board of Adjustments and Appeals open seat appointments; discussion of proposed citizen initiative ordinance; review of commercial zone billing procedure; consideration of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Fund expenditure; review of debt reserve requirements and fund balances; consideration of town line of credit loan renewal and consideration of Public Works vehicle purchase.
Following the Mayor’s report and several committee reports, there was one final opportunity for public comments regarding processes and decisions made by the board.
“I think it worked well, we’re going to run it again this meeting (Sept. 14). We still got substantive comments. It wasn’t like people didn’t say anything,” Bachran said.
Even with the new changes, the special meeting and regular meeting on Aug. 24 ran 4:59:57 according to the YouTube video. The real test to see if the new policy cuts down meeting times and doesn’t meet with significant public disapproval will likely come during the Sept. 14 meeting.