SCHENECTADY — New ground rules for public comment during City Council meetings were presented by Council President Ed Kosiur on Monday.
While Kosiur said they are meant to bring respect and decorum at City Council meetings, some residents said the new rules are meant to silence the public.
Kosiur presented the ground rules in public for the first time during the City Council’s committee meetings on Monday. All of the council members had seen the new ground rules and had spoken with Kosiur about them over the past two weeks.
Kosiur also sent a draft of the rules to state Committee on Open Government Executive Director Robert Freeman. He said he sent a couple of drafts to Freeman, who he said responded immediately with suggestions.
The new rules were presented following the April 23 meeting, during which Kosiur cut off resident Steve Ram, as he was criticizing City Councilman John Mootooveren. Kosiur felt some of the comments being made by Ram were “out of order” and were personal attacks on Mootooveren.
The City Code doesn’t have much laid out regarding public comment at City Council meetings, other than allowing the public to speak.
The state Open Meetings Law doesn’t even require the government to allow the public to speak at meetings, only that they be allowed to observe them, unless it is a closed-door executive session.
Since the City Council does allow public comment at meetings, Kosiur said he thought there should be some rules put in place. But he stressed he wasn’t trying to keep people from speaking.
“We aren’t taking away anyone’s’ freedom of speech,” Kosiur said.
Much of the new rules document doesn’t differ from current practice at meetings.
The rules allow for two public comment periods: one that allows the public to comment on the agenda and the other about any other city business.
Speakers will only be given three minutes to speak, and will be asked to wrap up by the council president when there is 15 seconds of that time left.
There is also another provision that says “proper decorum must be observed.”
This means residents cannot make personal attacks on council members, make “slanderous or obscene remarks,” make threats, or do anything that interferes with the meeting.
There was a change made regarding the signup sheet for public meetings. Residents will no longer have to put their addresses on the sheet; they’ll only be required to put their names.
This was done, Kosiur said, for privacy reason.
A new rule was added, though.
If Kosiur were to stop someone from speaking because he felt they were out of order, a majority of the council could bring a vote to override him. The majority of the council could also rule that a speaker is out of order.
Councilwomen Marion Porterfield and Leesa Perazzo said they had concerns about what constitutes a personal attack. Perazzo said the public is the council’s boss and that residents should have the right to express their opinions.
“I think the voice of the public is the most important voice we hear,” Perazzo said.
Porterfield also wondered if the new rules allowed residents to address council members by name.
City Corporation Counsel Carl Falotico said there was nothing in the rules that stopped residents from discussing specific council members, but they do have to address the City Council president.
When asked about personal attacks, Falotico said someone could levy a personal attack against a council member and it could still be about city business.
“If someone is saying ‘you’re a bad council president,’ it’s a personal attack, but it’s also city business,” Falotico said.
Perazzo also questioned why there weren’t rules governing the conduct of the council president. She claimed Kosiur has interrupted speakers numerous times during his tenure, “flustering” residents when they tried to speak.
“To add balance is to put confines around the council president and say when the council president can interrupt a speaker specifically,” Perazzo said.
Kosiur said that discretion is up to the council president. But he also said that’s why he added a rule allowing the council to override him.
Several members of the public were upset with the new rules.
Following the meeting, Mary McClaine called them “restrictive.”
“They are protecting themselves, and we can’t say what they’re doing,” McClaine said.
Dog park rules
The council also discussed recent issues regarding the dog park at Central Park. This comes after a 13-year old boy was attacked by dogs owned by Selena Rahm.
Rahm was recently charged with five counts of harboring a dangerous dog and three counts of owning and harboring an unlicensed dog.
Councilman John Polimeni said Police Chief Eric Clifford would be developing a list of rules and having them posted at the park. He also said there will be additional patrols by police and animal control officers.