The plan was to use COVID-19 era restrictions to make it more difficult or the public to speak at City Council meetings.
But Councilmember Sharon Hightower brought that dark plan into the light and killed it off with a few choice comments.
While the City Council continued to meet, albeit virtually, during the pandemic shutdown, for some never explained reason the monthly public comment period was canceled from April 2020 through September 2020. After people were once again allowed to speak to the City Council virtually in October 2020, the city required speakers to sign up online by 5 p.m. the day prior to the meeting. This was not altered even when the day prior to the meeting was a holiday and city offices were closed.
At the Tuesday, July 20 City Council meeting, Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced that this practice of requiring speakers to sign up online the day before the meeting would continue, even though speakers are now allowed to actually come to the meeting and speak from the podium.
Hightower objected and said, “We are disenfranchising people.” She noted that those who didn’t have computers or weren’t computer literate wouldn’t be allowed to speak.
Hightower said, “To say that people have to pre-signup I don’t think that’s being very inclusive.”
City Manager Chris Wilson said that the city had someone in the council vhamber at that meeting to sign people up.
But Hightower said that wasn’t good enough because people were being told they wouldn’t be allowed to speak at the meeting unless they had signed up online the day before, so why would they come to speak if they hadn’t already signed up.
Vaughan relented and said people would be allowed to sign up in person before the meeting and that the script she reads at the beginning of every meeting would be amended to reflect that.
Later, during the July 20 meeting, another reason signing up to speak the day before the meeting wouldn’t work came to light. Councilmember Justin Outling noted that an agenda item to extend the timeline for the economic development incentive loan of $500,000 and grant of $250,000 for the Piggly Wiggly on Florida Street was added to the agenda an hour before the meeting.
The item was added so late that the copy of the agenda Vaughan was using to run the meeting didn’t include that new item and Vaughan was unable to find a version on her iPad that did.
City Clerk Angie Lord had to provide Vaughan with a paper copy of the agenda for the meeting to continue.
But if someone had wanted to speak on that item there would be no reason for them to sign up the day before the meeting, because the day before the meeting it wasn’t on the agenda.
However, thanks to Hightower that problem is fixed.