Akron City Council will — for the first time — have a time set aside during regular meetings for public comment.
Residents will be able to speak for three minutes during an unlimited period at the end of council meetings.
Council members unanimously approved legislation Monday making this change, which was in response to a charter amendment overwhelmingly approved by voters last November.
The vote, however, was a stark contrast to a public hearing on the speaking issue earlier in the day, with council members engaging in terse exchanges with a former council member and with one another.
At that point, Council President Marco Sommerville and Councilman Mike Williams were offering competing pieces of legislation on the speaking issue. Williams was pushing to offer 15-minute speaking periods both at the beginning and end of council’s regular meetings on Monday nights. He thought people should be able to address council members before they voted to provide input on the agenda items and afterward in case they couldn’t make it to the earlier period.
Williams changed his mind by the council meeting Monday night when he supported the legislation offered by Sommerville and Councilman Jeff Fusco. That legislation provides a public speaking period at the end of council meetings, with residents allowed to speak on “matters within council’s authority” and no restrictions on the total speaking period. The legislation says the majority of council may vote to vary the rules, including if they want to permit people to speak at the beginning of a meeting.
“Our objective was to get a public speaking forum in council,” Williams said. “We got there.”
In a public hearing earlier in the day, the level of rancor was much higher.
When Sommerville commented that not many people had showed up for the public hearing on the speaking issue — eight people attended and three spoke — former Akron Councilman Ernie Tarle said from the audience, “It’s 1 p.m.”
“You’re out of order,” Sommerville told him, adding that Tarle recently got out of jail and didn’t pay his taxes.
Williams attempted to intervene, saying Sommerville was being disrespectful.
“You haven’t introduced any legislation in years,” Sommerville told Williams. “I’m glad you finally decided to do something.”
Sommerville and Fusco introduced legislation two weeks ago that basically would have continued the public speaking opportunities that residents now have, including a half-hour period before the regular council meetings that only one council member is required to attend. Williams and other critics, including Tarle, argued this didn’t go far enough to satisfy a charter amendment approved by voters that required council to adopt legislation “to permit public speaking in council meetings.”
Tarle, who circulated petitions last year to get an issue on the ballot requiring a speaking period during council, called council’s original public speaking proposal that maintained the current procedures “a slap in the face” of the voters who approved the charter amendment. (Council put the charter change on the ballot after Tarle’s petitions requiring a speaking period were rejected because of a deficiency.)
“What are you so afraid of?” Tarle asked council members during the public hearing. “You’re worried that, if the people figure out what a miserable job you’re doing, they will line up to tell you about it themselves.”
George Johnson, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1360, told council members that they need to hear direct input from the public. He said information can be “filtered or things left out,” so that council members don’t “understand what they are voting on.”
Asked about his exchange with Tarle, Sommerville said he is “sick and tired of Tarle dictating things in the community.” He said voters recalled Tarle when he was a councilman, after he was arrested for bribery charges that he later was acquitted of.
Tarle said he was arrested on a warrant last year after he failed to show up for a court appearance — that he claims he didn’t know about beforehand — related to his debt problems. He said he also recently filed for and was granted bankruptcy related to the debt he accumulated from failed real estate deals in Florida.
Members of the public who attended Monday’s council meeting applauded when council approved the public speaking legislation. Residents still will be permitted to speak during public hearings held on particular topics during committee and regular meetings. They can speak during committee meetings on other topics with the permission of the committee chair.
The new speaking rules will begin next Monday, Sommerville said.
“We will watch and see how the process works,” he said. “If it doesn’t, we will make adjustments.”
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.