These City Councils Are Changing Their Public Comment Rules as Gaza Ceasefire Debates Dominate

With intense debates over Gaza taking over America’s city council chambers, cities from Virginia to Colorado are restricting their public comment procedures.

Community members speak for and against a Gaza ceasefire resolution during a city council meeting at Richmond City Hall on March 25, 2023. (Photo by Dave Cantor / VPM)

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In the six months since Hamas’s deadly attack and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of Gaza, more than 100 municipalities across the country have passed resolutions calling for a ceasefire.

With more than 30,000 Palestinians dead, major cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Minneapolis, Atlanta and Detroit have formally declared their support for an end to Israel’s siege, often following dramatic showdowns and disruptions in their city council chambers.

With anti-war activists in Virginia’s capital city demanding that Richmond join the list, finding a seat in Richmond’s City Council meetings has been difficult. Week after week, the chambers have been flooded with anti-war protesters carrying “Ceasefire now!” signs and holding up hands covered in blood-red paint. Since the new year, attendees have often arrived three hours early to ensure a spot.

Yet as these intense debates increasingly dominate city council chambers across the country, Richmond and other cities across the country have begun implementing new restrictions to their public comment procedures.

With most cities’ conversations and procedural votes starting in January, anti-war advocates are concerned that these new restrictions are in response to long lines of pro-ceasefire speakers and disturbances from protestors.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, says the new restrictions highlight the “difficult balancing act” facing municipalities.

“The bigger question for these cities is, do they really want to be making it more difficult for citizens to engage with elected officials?” Farnsworth says. “It’s a key measure to get a sense of the public’s pulse, so to speak, if you can have these vibrant comment periods.”

In Fort Collins, Colorado, city staff drafted new restrictions, including limits on the comment period and limiting comments to items on the council agenda, after a demonstration ended a meeting early. In Aurora, Colorado, councilmembers last October passed a resolution condemning Hamas’s deadly invasion of Israel. Following massive resident outcry over their silence on the Palestinian death toll, councilmembers eventually voted to bar the council from weighing in on international events through resolutions at all.

“We’re not the United Nations,” Councilmember Curtis Gardner said, according to Denver7. “We’re not Congress. And, I don’t feel it’s our role to make performative statements on world events.”

Cleveland’s city council is weighing rule changes — including limiting comments a single item currently being considered by the body — after weeks of public comments criticizing city officials over their support for Israel. “What we’ve experienced the last three weeks is outrageous, unacceptable,” Councilman Mike Polensek told WKYC. “Public comment is supposed to be just that — to come in and voice your concerns about Cleveland issues, Cleveland concerns.”

Across the Canadian border in Surrey, British Columbia, the city council has temporarily banned members of the public from attending council meetings in person — a direct response to anti-war protestors’ disruptions, including takeovers of the chambers.

In three capital cities – Richmond, Virginia; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Salt Lake City, Utah— these changes emerged soon after major takeovers of the public comment period by activists calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Richmond, Virginia

On March 11, Richmond City Council voted unanimously to adopt several changes to its public comment procedures.

In Virginia’s capital city, signs are no longer allowed on the council chamber’s walls and doors, and signs brought into meetings are now restricted to 14 x 11 inches in size. Previously, speakers who signed up to offer public comment were required to provide a brief description required beforehand. Now, they must provide a “detailed and complete” description that “provides the clerk with an understanding of which city agency the comments pertain to or affects.”

The new rules will also prevent people from speaking for 90 days if they sign up to present but fair to appear without canceling by noon of the meeting day.

Richmond City Council President Kristen Nye tells VPM/Next City that these changes were based on suggestions from City Attorney Laura Drewry, hired last year, to help meetings run more smoothly.

“As she was sitting in on the meetings, she made the suggestion, ‘There are some things you all could do to make things flow a little more naturally, more efficiently and make things clearer for the public,’” Nye said of the new city attorney.

Drewry first publicly proposed the changes during a Feb. 5 organizational development meeting, following several disturbances and outbursts over a ceasefire resolution. During that meeting, Nye said the changes were partly based on “things our city attorney has seen in her new role,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Richmond, VA city hall

Richmond City Hall. (Photo by Taber Andrew Bain / CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Matthew Slaats, who began in January as a senior civic innovation manager with the city council to help improve community engagement, told VPM/Next City that he was not previously aware of the changes.

“As I understand, the changes in the public comment rules and procedures has been in the works since last summer,” he said. “The impetus for the change centered on improving meeting efficiency, broadening access in support of equity and fairness, to be more responsive to comments, and making the process more sustainable in terms of paper usage.”

According to the Times-Dispatch, Richmond City Council has said it will not move forward with a resolution as it is not protocol to weigh in on matters that don’t involve the city.

On the evening that the public comment changes were voted through, Richmond resident Allan-Charles Chipman connected the development to ongoing debates over a ceasefire resolution, which had been dominating the council’s public comment periods.

“If it is not in your spirit to make a statement around what is going on in several global impacts in the world, I would say, let us at least not complicate those who have found the courage to speak,’” Chipman told the council.

Mark D. Wood is a Virginia Commonwealth University associate professor of religious studies and a resident of Richmond for 24 years. He emphasizes that the locals calling for a ceasefire come from a wide range of backgrounds and do not represent a single organization or population.

“If I was city council member, I’d be looking out and saying … ‘This really represents a broad range of people in the city who are all converging around this demand for an end to the violence and for the establishment of equal rights,’” says Wood, who has spoken before city council in favor of a ceasefire resolution.

Raleigh, North Carolina

Following a public comment period in January that lasted more than 3.5 hours, with 217 residents signed up to speak about the war, city councilmembers in Raleigh, North Carolina began considering new restrictions that were directly linked to the Gaza protests.

“I want to make sure we separate that in this conversation from every public comment moving forward,” City Council Member Christina Jones said then, according to WRAL. “When we move beyond the resolution discussion … [to] make sure we’re not penalizing residents in the future because we’re having a hard time now.”

According to Raleigh’s government website, the city has adopted new changes to its public comment procedures, “aiming for more predictability and clarity for speakers and Council.”

The new restrictions, which took effect March 12, include a cap of 165 speakers for their second Tuesday primetime session and 50 for the third Tuesday afternoon session. Other changes include moving up the deadline for speaker sign-up and systemically reducing speaking time as the number of speakers grows.

According to ABC 11, Feb. 13’s city council meeting in North Carolina’s capital was the fourth consecutive meeting where the resolution dominated the public comment section.

Over 100 people were scheduled to give public comment, just a week after Raleigh mayor Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin announced that the city would not pursue a ceasefire resolution due to the council’s inability to reach a consensus. According to the News & Observer, in a surprise vote on March 6, Raleigh’s city council was split 4-4 on a ceasefire resolution that wasn’t on the agenda. Three city councilors alongside Mayor Baldwin voted against the resolution.

“In the past few months, it’s become abundantly clear that we cannot just get over this,” Councilmember Mary Black, who raised the issue, said prior to the vote. “We cannot wait out in silence. We cannot ignore the people who have eagerly demanded us to do one thing: Vote on a ceasefire resolution.”

Salt Lake City, Utah

Salt Lake City adopted a broad peace resolution on Feb. 20 that fell short of advocates’ calls for a ceasefire resolution. Within weeks, the city council fast-tracked major changes to its public input process, giving residents little notice and no opportunity to offer feedback.

On March 5, the Salt Lake City Council revised its formal meeting agenda to consider an amendment to public comment rules. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the council rearranged the agenda so that the changes were considered before the public speaking period, preventing meaningful input from constituents. The following day, the changes were voted through unanimously.

The Tribune reports that ​​the agenda item to revise the comment policy period appeared with no drafted language or materials for the public to review until March 6. The topic was discussed at the city council’s public work session held prior to the formal meeting that day, but the session did not provide an opportunity for public comment.

Asked about the sudden changes, the council chair’s response was blunt.

“Because we can,” Salt Lake City Council Chair Victoria Petro told the Tribune. “Because we know what’s coming down the pike in terms of projects and time that we’re going to have to manage. Because this is when everyone was available and ready to handle it.”

Members of the work session went on to discuss, among other things, the potential of limiting the number of commenters, requiring groups to designate a spokesperson to address a particular issue, and the possibility of implementing a residency requirement.

Council members denied that there was an effort to silence residents, telling the Tribune they were not “trying to do something dark” and “there is no free expression being stifled here.”

Hartford, Connecticut

Meanwhile, in the capital city of Connecticut, residents and lawmakers have lambasted the city council’s coordination of public comments on a ceasefire resolutions as “maddening” and “unconstitutional.”

On Feb. 13, more than 140 speakers turned out for public comments before the city council meeting, the Hartford Courant reports, with many pro-Palestine speakers calling on Hartford leaders to introduce a ceasefire resolution as nearby Windsor and Bridgeport had recently done.

Public comments are typically one hour long and held in person, according to Hartford’s charter rules. But this time, they were held over Zoom due to a snowstorm – and residents say the meeting was plagued with technical issues and mismanagement.

According to the Courant, some who signed up were unable to speak, while others noted non-residents were prioritized over Hartford residents regarding the Israel-Hamas conflict. Hartford resident Sarah White said many Hartford residents, particularly those supporting a ceasefire, were denied the opportunity to speak.

Councilman Josh Michtom said he heard from constituents that the council president’s staff had claimed that only three people would be allowed to speak in favor of a ceasefire resolution. “I let council president know that a content-based limitation on public comment was unconstitutional,” Michtom told the Courant.

Several would-be speakers, including Michtom and his wife, also reported being unable to unmute themselves or experiencing connectivity issues.

“This raises questions about accessibility,” Hartford resident Kerri Ana Provost told the Courant. “Council president scolded would-be speakers for not unmuting, or not doing so fast enough, even though they were not all given this capability … This would have been absurdist comedy if it were not so maddening.”

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Barry Greene, Jr. is Next City's Equitable Cities Reporting Fellow For Reparations Narratives and a native of Southside Richmond, Virginia. Through his newsletter and moniker “density dad,” Greene is constantly working to spread awareness of the necessity to think of families with young children as well as seniors within the built environment. As a 2023 NACTO Transportation Justice Fellow, Barry aims to help Richmond return to its glory days of leading the industry in public transportation. You can catch him commuting by Brompton, bus or both in conjunction.

Tags: city councilspolitics

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