October 13, 2012

Want to comment at government meetings in Wichita? Sign up first

Mark Gietzen fought the deadline, and the activist won.

Mark Gietzen fought the deadline, and the activist won.

Gietzen recently wanted to get on the Sedgwick County Commission’s agenda to talk about an information sheet the county had posted about fluoride on its website. But the county requires people to sign up nine days in advance to speak at commission meetings, and the deadline to speak at the next meeting had passed.

In the end, commissioners agreed to bend the rules and let Gietzen — and anyone else — speak to commissioners Wednesday about the effort to fluoridate Wichita’s water supply.

Nineteen people have since signed up to do so.

Gietzen questioned the need for the public to sign up nine days in advance, a rule Commissioner Richard Ranzau also believes is excessive.

Commissioner Karl Peterjohn urged his colleagues to let Gietzen speak.

“I would let people sign up the day of the meeting,” Ranzau said Friday. “Have a sign-up sheet out front and let people talk.”

A review of rules for various public boards — the county, the Wichita City Council and the Wichita school board — shows that all require people to sign up to speak during the public comment portion of meetings.

That’s not surprising, said Ed Flentje, professor of public administration at Wichita State University’s Hugo Wall School of Urban and Public Affairs and a former interim manager for the city of Wichita.

“It can get chaotic” if there’s no sign-up in advance, he said.

“I think smaller jurisdictions can be more informal about it,” he said.

The county has the strictest deadline. People who want to speak to commissioners during the public comment portion of one of their regular weekly meetings must put their request in writing to County Manager William Buchanan’s office at least nine days in advance. Prospective speakers are asked to provide their name, the date they’d like to be on the agenda, the topic they want to discuss, their phone number and address.

Public hearings at meetings are another matter. The chairman of the commission, who this year is Tim Norton, simply asks if anyone in the audience wishes to speak. People are asked to sign a sheet and provide their name and address.

Gietzen, president of the Kansas Republican Assembly, said he was satisfied with what commissioners did to accommodate him and others before Wichita voters go to the polls Nov. 6 to decide, among other things, whether to fluoridate Wichita’s water.

“I have no gripe with the County Commission at this time,” Gietzen said.

Commissioner Dave Unruh said he thinks the county’s rule about public comment makes sense.

Public speakers generally get five minutes to talk to commissioners, though the board has whittled that to three when a lot of people are in line to speak.

“I think it’s important that we have some sort of procedure that allows us to keep control of what’s going on,” Unruh said. “I don’t think we’re depriving anybody of an opportunity to speak.”

At City Hall, the City Council asks people to sign up with the city manager’s office by noon on the Tuesday preceding the meeting at which they want to speak. Up to five people can speak. The public part of the agenda for the council’s meeting this week is already spoken for “and has been full for some time,” a spokeswoman said in an e-mail. A few slots were open as of Friday for the council’s Nov. 6 meeting.

Speakers get five minutes to try to sway council members.

Mayor Carl Brewer said sometimes people do go over their allotted time. He said he usually will let them finish their sentence or the point they are trying to make.

Speakers for the most part are courteous, Brewer said.

“Most people are very respectful. Even those that are angry are still very respectful,” he said. “We don’t allow yelling from the back of the room or the audience.”

Public comment helps council members inform their decisions on important issues, Brewer said.

“A lot of times we end up finding out information, or it may cause us to ask additional questions,” Brewer said.

Like at county and school board meetings, speakers at council meetings can’t talk about legal or personnel matters.

“If a person who’s speaking brings up a legal matter, we’ll try to stop it,” Brewer said.

People who want to speak to the Wichita school board can do so during the “public communications” section of its agenda.

Topics are limited to matters on the board’s agenda or matters over which the board has jurisdiction.

The board allows up to 10 people to speak during the public communications part of the meeting.

The public also may comment during an agenda item.

The school board asks people to register by noon of the day of the board’s meeting by calling the board’s clerk, or they may register at the meeting up to 10 minutes before the meeting.

Speakers get three minutes to talk.

Lynn Rogers, president of the school board, said there’s typically “not a great deal” of public comment.

“Over the years it’s been somewhat varied,” Rogers said. “The times it gets the most used is when there’s a big hot issue.”

Rogers said the board encourages people to “bring up unique arguments and comments” instead of repeating what a previous speaker has said. It can get tiresome to hear “10 people who come and say exactly the same thing,” he said.

Public comment is beneficial, he said.

“I know of situations where comments have been made that help us get a view of what’s going on,” he said. “The difficult part is we don’t always have the information to respond. It’s more of a listening situation. But I think it can be very useful and help us frame an issue.”

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