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Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe: Revisiting rules of the game

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By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

A few weeks into my first semester of graduate journalism school, one of my professors brought a Monopoly game to class. We sat down on the floor and gathered around that classic board to divvy up our game pieces and Monopoly money. With our professor’s help, we deconstructed the game as we played.

We learned how important it was, as journalists, to know and understand the rules of any game, board or otherwise. Sometimes the person who best understands the rules wins. Other times, the person who knows how to break the rules wins. And, talking a lot about the rules does not make you the life of the party.

I recalled that lesson this week when the Denton City Council revisited its “rules of procedure” for public participation in its formal meetings twice a month. Council meetings can be filled with drama and maneuvering, but hashing over procedural rules for those meetings can be dull as dishwater — and very important.

Remembering that Monopoly game from years ago, I stayed tuned this week as the council talked for about two hours on how best to allow citizens to speak at its meetings.

The boss says, and rightly so, that those discussions are filled with “inside baseball” minutiae that few people care about. We also know it’s your game, and our job to let you know if city officials are going to call the balls and strikes the same for everyone who wants to speak.

Mayor Chris Watts and several council members are trying to rebalance the two main issues involved in public participation: How to keep meetings from running past midnight and still let citizens have their say.

Currently, speakers are limited to three minutes, with a few exceptions, to address the council on an issue that concerns them. Watts said he learned firsthand how difficult it was to talk about a complicated issue in just three minutes when he recently testified before legislative committees in Austin.

Watts wanted to extend that limit to five minutes. But he quickly ran up against another concern: extending the time could make for even longer council meetings. Heavy public participation in debates about a smoking ordinance and hydraulic fracturing have created exceptionally long meetings.

Denton residents have also come to meetings to testify about new electrical sub-stations and power lines, annexations, zoning cases and more.

Some speakers have waited for hours to make their case to the council. New speaker rules under consideration could help solve that problem.

The council is looking at a compromise: Extend the limit to four minutes. A group of at least four people concerned about the same issue would have the option to work together, choose a spokesperson and get 10 minutes to present their case.

Council member Greg Johnson said he hoped that option would encourage more thorough presentations. He said he’s noticed that council members often ask questions after a speaker is finished because they want additional information that was not revealed in the first three minutes.

The council also hears from another category of speakers — applicants, or their representatives, in permit and zoning cases. Currently, the applicant and his/her team gets a maximum of 15 minutes. The council is leaning toward increasing that time to 20 minutes.

Johnson said it may be the best way to help those applicants with complicated cases facing possible denial.

“They can feel they’ve had their say,” he said.

Interesting enough, there is no clock running when city staff members address a permit or zoning case pending before the council.

There is yet another category of speakers. Those who want to raise new issues not currently before the council can speak at the beginning of a meeting or must wait until the end. It depends on one key factor, and that is how often a speaker shows up at a meeting.

Under current rules, if someone wants to speak to the council, the person has to contact City Hall with a brief description of the topic to get on the “citizens” agenda. And, the person has to make the request about a week in advance.

That option will still be available under the new proposal. Up to five people could be scheduled at the beginning of the meeting. But the council added another option the city attorney called “open mic.” If any of those five slots are unfilled on the night of the meeting, a resident will be allowed to speak at the beginning of the meeting without the week-in-advance notice.

Council member Kevin Roden said he felt that option was important for emergency issues. And, the past few years, it’s been rare that more than three people have been scheduled on the citizens agenda.

A previous City Council decided that people who frequently ask to speak week after week would be scheduled differently. A citizen who had appeared on an agenda at the beginning of the meeting within the last six months could only be scheduled at the end of the agenda.

The rule effectively ended the testimony of frequent critics because they don’t want to wait around until midnight to talk.

The current council seems reluctant to abolish the end-of-council speaking slots because some commuters can’t get back to Denton in time to make the 6:30 p.m. start time for speakers. And the council might allow people who have not spoken for three months to occupy one of the early time slots.

Here’s another consideration that is really “inside baseball.”

Public hearings, which are buried inside a council agenda, consist of a city staff presentation and public speakers. The council often peppers staff with questions after their presentation and then peppers speakers with questions.

City Manager George Campbell suggested — oh so delicately — that council members refrain from asking questions until the end of a public hearing.

The council didn’t balk at Campbell’s pitch.

The proposed rule changes signal a respect for public input and ultimately should be good for the game.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.