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Akron City Council approves public comment restrictions

Citizens hold signs in support of Palestinian community at Akron City Council meeting
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Citizens hold signs supporting the Palestinian community at an Akron City Council meeting on Oct. 30. City council voted Dec. 4 to ban signs and banners from council chambers.

With just one meeting left in the year, Akron City Council has approved new rules, including limiting the number of speakers and prohibiting signs and banners.

The public comment period will be limited to 10 speakers, and members of the public can only speak once every 30 days.

Under the new rules passed Monday night, meetings will now begin at 6:30 p.m. instead of 7 and the public comment period will move to the beginning of the meeting. Currently, the public comment period is at the end of the meeting and there is no limit to the number of speakers.

The changes will allow council to hear from different people every week, Council President Margo Sommerville said.

“The reason why we’re doing that is because we want everyone to have an opportunity to address this body. If that piece was not included, you’d have the same 10 people addressing this body every single Monday,” Sommerville said.

Council approved the new rules despite opposition from members of the public at recent city council meetings. A group of 27 community members and organizations signed a letter Monday opposing the changes, saying it limits public participation in the democratic process.

The letter references a ballot initiative approved by voters in 2011 that created the public comment period, which states any limits on speaking must be “reasonable.”

“We firmly believe that neither the proposed 10-person limit nor the 30-day restriction is “reasonable”, unduly restricts public participation in council meetings, and is out-of-step with how other Ohio cities manage public comment,” citizens wrote in the letter.

Councilmember and incoming mayor Shammas Malik opposed the changes.

“I understand the need to try to improve discourse and dialogue and decorum, but I do think that putting a limit on the number of people is not going to change people’s tone. In fact, it may well do the opposite,” Malik said.

Anyone interested in speaking before council must sign up by 4 p.m. the day of the meeting, and the 10 speakers will be first-come, first-serve, Sommerville added. Currently, people could sign up anytime before the meeting.

Council also approved an ordinance that would ban signs, banners, noisemakers and backpacks from council chambers.

While Sommerville cited safety concerns as the reason for the change, Councilmember Tara Mosley felt the changes were too broad.

“We have reporters who come to this council and they carry their laptops with them and their backpacks. We have some parents who come with their children and they have a diaper bag,” Mosley said. “I think putting security at the front of the building as you enter – that takes care of any apprehension anyone would have for safety.”

Both pieces of legislation passed 8 to 5, with councilmembers Nancy Holland, Shammas Malik, Tara Mosley, Russ Neal and Linda Omobien voting against.

The vote came the same day a citizen filed suit against Cleveland City Council for cutting off his mic during his public comment speech in September. The council is also considering rule changes, including limiting people to only speak about agenda items. Public comment is already limited to 10 people.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.