Council is divided on public comment Stukes proposes allowing people to address city panel at regular meetings

November 10, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

Is there a burning civic issue that you have wanted to get off your chest but didn't because you think your City Council members aren't listening?

Well, that may change if the Baltimore City Council votes today to change its rules, which have for decades prevented the public from addressing the body during its weekly meetings.

"How do you say to the public that you are elected to serve, 'I don't want to afford the opportunity for you to speak to us in a formal setting in City Council chambers'?" asked 6th District Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who drafted the petition for the rule change and represents south and southwest Baltimore.

The proposed rule change would work like this: Anyone who wishes to speak would have to be sponsored by one of the 19 council members. The speaker also would have to state a topic and speak only on that subject.

That name would then be taken to the council president for approval. The council would have to vote by majority to allow the speaker to address the council.

The council would allow 30 minutes for speakers before or immediately after its regular 5 p.m. meetings. The session for speakers would occur once a month for an unspecified trial period.

The issue is dividing the council.

Supporters say that changing the rule would allow the council to be more in touch with the issues that residents think are important.

"We can't be good leaders until we are good listeners," said 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran, who represents Northeast Baltimore.

But detractors say that allowing the workaday citizen a chance to address the body will make the meetings longer.

Stukes said the detractors are walking a thin line by saying no because they can come off as elitist.

"To make that kind of judgment without giving it a try is a mistake," he said. "It makes the council look like it doesn't want to hear from the people."

Nevertheless, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III is fighting passage of the rule change.

"I think it is unnecessary," Bell said. "The place for public comment is at the public hearings."

Before a law is voted on, the council must hold a public hearing to field comments from citizens. Bell said the council holds public hearings so people can give their opinions.

Fifth District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, who represents Northwest Baltimore, said the council should stick to the way things have been done.

"I can only envision a terrific damage to our process," Spector said. "Our process already gives anybody ample opportunity to speak."

The council seems to be almost evenly split, though there might be enough detractors to sink the petition.

"I'm no big fan of it," said 3rd District Councilman Martin O'Malley.

Other members said the council's mission during its Monday meetings is to vote on laws.

"My feeling is that all this is going to do is confuse what the council is supposed to do," said 2nd District Councilman Robert L. Douglass of East Baltimore. "Right now, I'm not enamored with the [rule change]. But I don't know how I'm going to vote."

Stukes said the benefit of the rule change is that it allows the public to speak to the entire council at once. The full council rarely appears at hearings, he said.

Fourth District Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. of West Baltimore said he supports the rule change, at least for a trial period.

"I see nothing wrong with it," Mitchell said. "On the local level, you are closest to the people, and it is an opportunity for people who want to be a part of government."

Pub Date: 11/10/97

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