The Alexandria City Council voted 6 to 1 this week to limit the number of speakers at the start of its monthly Saturday hearings, an attempt to arrest the expanding length of those meetings’ public-comment period.
Over the vociferous objections of first-term Mayor Allison Silberberg (D), the council agreed to allow no more than 15 speakers in the “open-mic” period that starts at 9:30 a.m.
Anyone else who wants to talk about issues not on the agenda will have to wait until the end of the meeting — often five to eight hours later.
The proposal, considered without prior notice at the end of Tuesday night’s legislative session, sparked a heated discussion between Silberberg and her colleagues on the all-Democratic panel.
Silberberg called limiting the number of speakers a “draconian, arbitrary . . . anti-democratic” attempt to limit free speech. Vice Mayor Justin Wilson fired back that improving the management of the meetings on behalf of all residents “is the definition of democracy.”
Since Silberberg succeeded longtime mayor Bill Euille a year ago, the length of the public comment periods has doubled from 32 minutes, on average, to 64, according to an analysis of the public record made by Wilson. In January and April, the public comment periods lasted over 200 minutes, the vice mayor said.
Unlike Euille, Silberberg responds to nearly every citizen who takes the microphone, sometimes at length. While Euille preferred to quickly move from speaker to speaker, Silberberg revels in the comments portion of the meeting, expressing disappointment on the rare occasions when only a few people sign up.
Opponents of a lengthy comment period say it means that people who show up in council chambers for specific items on the regular agenda — land-use requests, spending decisions, policy changes — are left waiting so that others can talk about issues not scheduled for a vote that day.
“The public and the business community . . . have a reasonable expectation that the council’s business should be done in a fair, predictable and efficient way,” said Dak Hardwick, chairman of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. Small-business owners, he noted, usually have to hire attorneys to shepherd rezoning requests through the council, and those people are paid by the hour to sit through everything that comes before their items.
Council members said they’ve heard from members of the public, both in person and on local blogs, who are frustrated that the same people stand up week after week to pitch their pet causes, three to five minutes at a time.
Last January, one man was so frustrated with the wait that he stood up, interrupted the meeting to berate the council and was escorted out by police.
Several council members admitted Tuesday night that they have exacerbated the problem by also responding to nearly every open-mic speaker. The council’s policy, which is on every agenda but has never been enforced, is to limit that time to 30 minutes.
Council members also noted that residents now can email the whole council at once, or call and leave messages. And, at every Saturday meeting, up to 15 of them will still have a chance to speak at the beginning, with an unlimited number of others able to address the council at the end.