Tooele City leaders have begun to draft a policy they say would keep meetings from getting unruly by requiring citizens who wish to speak to register in advance.
The measure would replace the long-standing “Open Forum” section of Tooele City’s twice-monthly council meetings with a more regulated public comment period in an effort to keep public meetings from getting out of hand, said Brad Pratt, chairman for the Tooele City Council.
“The open forum has become an opportunity to take pot shots at city officials and the mayor,” he said during a city council work session last Wednesday.
The open forum — which goes back at least to the 1980s, if not later — has historically allowed members of the community to address the city council regarding concerns or issues not included on the city agenda.
Unlike public hearings, which are public comment periods that are required by law for municipal actions such as conditional use permits, an open forum is not required under Utah’s Open Meetings Act.
In fact, because the Open Meetings Act specifically bars the city council from deciding, voting upon, or even discussing issues not listed on the official meeting agenda, the open forum has become not only an irritant to the city council, but also a liability.
Because of the law, which was last amended in 2010, the city council has refused to speak to or act on issues brought up during open forum. This has begun to frustrate members of the public, Pratt said, because they don’t understand the law or process of open meetings.
Implementing a regulated public comment period instead of the open forum would give the city council “an opportunity to train the public in the process of talking to us,” said Pratt.
Under the drafted public comment period policy, residents would be required to “provide their full name, home address, telephone number, email address, and a brief description of the topic or topics they wish to address,” a draft of the policy says.
“A person who does not register in this manner shall not be permitted to speak at the public comment period,” the draft says.
The policy also limits each registered spokesperson to a maximum of three minutes for his or her presentation, although the chairperson would have discretion to allow additional time if necessary.
Pratt emphasized that the draft, and Wednesday’s discussion in the work session, both represented a policy that remains in its infancy. Though the draft laid out some of the regulations currently in effect in other Utah communities, he said he believed parts of the draft would be dropped from the final policy — if the city council decides to make any changes at all.
Pratt said he personally is opposed to mandating registration for public comments, because the enforcement of such a rule will be time consuming for city staff. However, he also said he would like to see some changes go into effect that would allow the city to better guide citizens to the department that would be best able to address their grievances.
The city council did not take any action on the proposal, nor did they set a date to vote on the policy. However, Pratt said he would like to see the policy “implemented in the near future.” He expects to see the issue return to the council’s work session agenda within the next two months.