Making Worcester City Council meetings more open to the people

By Ronal Madnick, Executive Director, ACLU, Worcester County Chapter

A number of people, mostly from South Main, feel that they should be able to address the Worcester City Council when their petition first appears on the council agenda without having to ask for permission to speak. To bring that about the Worcester County Chapter of the American

Civil l\Liberties Union of Massachusetts has placed an item before the council that calls for allowing the primary petitioner for any item before the city council to be allowed to speak on the petition the first day it appears on the agenda.

We asked that a person should be able to speak when an item is first on the agenda and before it is sent to a committee because quite often an item is sent to a committee which may not meet for quite some time.. Some people, feel that the right to speak on their item should be a right, not a privilege.

The first item passed on a 6 to 4 vote with councilor Smith out of the room. The item was then put on the agenda for the next meeting to be reconsidered. As of this time the outcome of on that item is not known. The ACLU is asking the council to vote against reconsideration so that the vote would stand and the language would be approved.

To give the public greater access to council meetings the ACLU has placed a second item on the agenda which calls for a public access open forum which would take place for up to thirty minutes after the pledge, the star spangled banner, and the roll call, The mayor can announce we will have a public open forum in which any citizen can talk on any item on tonight’s agenda. Is there anyone who wishes to speak? Also, when a person’s item(s) comes up on the agenda, you will be allowed to speak on your item(s) at that time. Just walk over to the microphone.

If you look a city council agenda, usually you will notice the fourth item is called, “Items of Citizen Interest.” Perhaps that item was intended to be exactly what the Worcester County Chapter of the ACLUM is asking for; an opportunity for citizens to speak on any item that is on the agenda for that evening.

The cities of Fitchburg and Leominster and the towns of Spencer, Brookfield, North Brookfield, Ashburnham, Millbury, and others in Worcester County have such a public access open forum.

There may be people with young children who need to get home to prepare for the next school day. They can speak and then leave.

There are certain safeguards built into the proposal.

First, a person can only talk on an item that is on that particular agenda.

Second, there is a time limit of five minutes per person regardless of the number of items they want to speak on. This guarantees that others will have a chance to speak.

The council can always extend the thirty minutes if they wish to do so by suspending the rules of the council.

Finally, the proposal is to be an experiment for six months. If it is successful, you might want to improve it or enlarge it. If it is a failure you can end it.

The vote was 5 to 5 with City Councilor Joff Smith out of the room so that motion failed. In order to get majority support the ACLU has offered a compromise. We ask that the council vote for reconsideration. We offered a compromise for their consideration to get majority support. We proposed that the time to speak be reduced from 5 to 3 minutes. A person can speak on their petition, either when it first comes up on the agenda or in the public access period ,but not both. The person can only speak once.

We propose instead of a six month trial period that the trial would last ten city council meetings.

Will this create greater involvement in city government? We do not know but we will never know unless we see if these proposals lead to more citizen involvement.

As of this time the outcome of on that item is not known.

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The following letter was sent to all Worcester City Councilors:

TO: All Members of the Worcester City Council

DATE: June 14, 2010

FROM: Ron Madnick, Director, Worcester County Chapter ACLUM

RE: 4a and 12a

4.
RECONSIDERATION

4a. In Accordance with Rule 41 of the Rules of City Council, Councilor William J. Eddy requests reconsideration of the vote of City Council taken on June 8, 2010 relative to the REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON RULES AND LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS Upon the Petition of Ronal Madnick, Director of the Worcester County Chapter American Civil Liberties Union of Mass, request that the primary petitioner for any item before the city council be allowed to speak on his or her petition the day it appears on the agenda: recommend the adoption of the accompanying Order to request the City Manager to request the City Solicitor amend the Rules of City Council to allow a petitioner to speak the day their petition appears on the City Council Agenda.

On 4A we ask that you vote against reconsideration so that the vote stands and the language is approved.

12.
TABLED UNDER PRIVILEGE

12a.
Reconsideration of the REPORT OF THE COMMITTEE ON RULES AND LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS Upon the Petition of Ronal Madnick, Director of the Worcester County Chapter American Civil Liberties Union of Mass., request City Council adopt a “public access” open forum, which would take place in the first 30 minutes of any council meeting and allow anyone to speak on any item of business on the agenda, regardless of its position on the agenda: recommend adoption of the accompanying Order to request the City Manager to request City Solicitor amend the Rules of City Council to allow a “Public Access” open forum within the City Council agenda for a trial period of six months, as requested by Councilor Clancy, in accordance with Rule 41 of the Rules of City Council, the vote of City Council taken on June 8, 2010. (Tabled – Lukes June 8, 2010)
On 12A we ask that you vote for reconsideration. We offer a compromise for your consideration to get majority support. We propose that the time to speak be reduced from 5 to 3 minutes. A person can speak on their petition either when it first comes up on the agenda or in the public access period but not both. The person can only speak once.

We propose Instead of a six month trial period that the trial would last ten city council meetings
Will this create greater involvement in city government? We do not know but we will never know unless we see if these proposals lead to more citizen involvement.

– Ronal Madnick

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