By Charles Sercombe
If you want to speak to the city council during public comment, you better get there a little early.
The council recently adopted a new rule about the length of time the public can speak at their meetings.
Each speaker is limited to three minutes tops, and the public comment section is now limited to 30 minutes at the beginning of the meeting, and 15 minutes at the end.
That means, if people ahead of you talk all the way to the 30-minute mark and you haven’t had a chance to step up to the lectern, you are out of luck until the end of the meeting.
And if there are still people ahead of you who eat up the allotted 15 minute maximum, you’ll have to come back to the next meeting.
Council meetings have lately run two or more hours long, and at one meeting, the public comment portion — including the reading of emails and letters — ran for three hours just by itself.
The new rule was proposed by Mayor Pro Tem Mohammed Hassan, who is up for re-election this November.
At the August council meeting, Hassan said that the new policy is needed because some people abuse the right to address the council, and waste the council’s time.
“Maybe they don’t have a job,” Hassan said.
There has been blowback from residents, and even from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).
The group sent the city administration a letter saying that the new policy violates the state’s Open Meetings Act in a ruling made in 1978 by then-State Attorney General Frank Kelly.
“Since a provision which limits the period of time at a public meeting during which citizens may address the public body to 1/2 hour may result in certain members of the public being denied the opportunity to address the body, it is my opinion that, if the rule limiting the period of citizen participation to 1/2 hour is applied in a manner which completely denies a person the right to address the public body, it will constitute a violation of the act,” Kelly said.
An attorney for the ACLU, Ramos J. Wadood, further said, in his letter to the city:
“While listening to public comments from all concerned individuals at an evening meeting may be burdensome for elected officials, doing exactly that is the most fundamental requirement of the job. Public comment is one of the most essential features of local democracy and one of the best ways to promote civic engagement.”
City Manager Max Garbarino said he and the city attorney are reviewing the matter.
Hamtramck is not the only city to have a similar limit on public comment.
The Ferndale City Council also limits its public comment section to 30 minutes at the beginning of their meetings, and allows anyone who did not get a chance to speak to wait until the council finishes its agenda items.
Curt Guyette of the ACLU was not impressed.
“Just because someone else is doing it doesn’t make it legal. In our letter and attachments, we make it clear that what the Hamtramck City Council has voted to do clearly violates the Open Meetings Act,” Guyette told The Review.
Former Mayor Karen Majewski sided with the ACLU in the matter in her Facebook page.
“Hamtramck elected officials get smack down from ACLU. Read it and weep, boys!’ she said, referring to the all-male city council.
Council candidate Nasr Hussain said that, if he is elected, he will propose to eliminate it.
“I am with the ACLU on this issue. City should rescind this restrictive resolution,” Hussain said. “If I get elected I will make sure such resolutions limiting public discourse are never passed.”
Council candidate Lynn Blasey has also spoken against the new limit.
Mayor Amer Ghalib also weighed in on a discussion about the new rule on the Facebook page Hamtramck Square.
“I don’t have a problem with unlimited time of public comments. I enjoy listening to people’s concerns. I don’t mind staying at the meeting until midnight despite of my busy schedule but I devote enough time for my city job even if I have to leave my paying job for that,” Ghalib said.
“With that being said, I still support unlimited and unrestricted time of public comments.
“The reason some council members came up with these rules was the abuse of some people for this privilege, where one person would write 10 emails or drop 15 paper comments written by the same person just to address a single issue, repeating the same words over and over.”
The council also has a rule limiting the amount of time each councilmember can speak on a resolution. That limit is set at five minutes, but this rule has yet to be enforced, and some resolution discussions go on for 30 minutes or more.
As for the new time limit for public comment, it was put to the test at Tuesday’s council meeting. That’s when a number of people showed up to speak.
During the second round of public comment, that’s when things took an interesting turn. Two people got up to the lectern and said … nothing for their full three minutes in what appeared as a way to eat up the clock and ensure that someone would be denied their right to address the council.
Sure enough, at the end of 15 minutes, a few people spoke out, saying they had not been able to speak to the council.
Mayor Ghalib immediately suspended the new time limit rule and allowed them to speak.
Posted Sept. 15, 2023