SLC council to consider changes to public comment policy

Proposal comes after council members endured lengthy and intense calls for a resolution supporting a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) City Hall and downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. The City Council is poised to make changes to public comment periods before the council.

After offering almost no notice and providing little opportunity for input, the Salt Lake City Council is poised to adopt new restrictions on public comment during council meetings.

The exact changes may remain an open question, but council members are scheduled to consider a resolution enacting them Tuesday evening. City staffers are recommending the council “suspend the rules and adopt” the changes immediately, effectively shutting down any meaningful chance for constituents to weigh in.

The proposed policy changes were a late addition to the meeting, appearing on a revised agenda Monday after the posting of the initial agenda.

Asked why the council wouldn’t wait until a future meeting to give the public an opportunity to review the changes, council Chair Victoria Petro said it’s a legislative decision about how council members manage their own time.

“Because we can,” said Petro, who represents the west-side neighborhoods of Rose Park, Westpointe, Jordan Meadows and a chunk of Fairpark. “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.”

The proposal to potentially restrict input follows several meetings of intense and lengthy public comment from activists pressuring the council to adopt a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the latest Israel-Hamas war. The council eventually relented and adopted a resolution in support of peace but fell short of calling for a cease-fire.

A demonstration outside City Hall hours after the council approved the peace resolution led to some council members receiving a police escort home, a council spokesperson said.

What might change?

Existing rules allow residents to speak to the council for two minutes. There is no limit on how many people can participate and how long a general public comment period can last.

The agenda item includes no draft resolution and did not include any materials for public review until Tuesday.

A staff report uploaded Tuesday says the council could discuss a possible time limit on the general comment section, changing the two-minute time limit for speakers, removing a “first-come, first-served” system of accepting comments, reducing general comment to one period a month and guaranteeing a meeting end time.

The possible changes, Petro said, are about Salt Lake City growing into its new identity as a larger city with a greater number of constituents who want to weigh in on a variety of issues. She said council members remain approachable by phone, email and social media.

“There is no free expression,” she said, “being stifled here.”

Fellow council member Alejandro Puy, who represents the west-side neighborhoods of Glendale, Poplar Grove, a slice of Fairpark and part of downtown, said he has been pushing for changes since January.

Puy said the council intends to keep a public forum available, even though it’s under no obligation to offer an opportunity for public comment. The goal, he said, is to allow the city to continue to conduct its business and for residents to feel comfortable in expressing their views, something he said has been an issue in the past.

“We haven’t made a decision,” he said. “We still don’t know what the council feels comfortable doing.”

Work session discussions

Asked about why the council may forgo its traditional practice of proposing changes in one meeting and then adopting them at a later date, and whether this expedited approach violates the spirit of government transparency, Puy said the rules allow it.

“You really want to push that, right?” he responded. “Like, making it look like we are trying to do something dark. No, we’re going to discuss this in public at the work session.”

Work sessions are held Tuesday afternoons immediately before formal council meetings and do not provide for public comment.

Puy said while options for new rules are being left open, he wants to see them adopted immediately.

“I want to make sure that this public forum is safe for everybody,” he said, “but it’s also not abuse.”

Puy and Petro were the only council members who responded to requests about the potentially fast-tracked changes.

The following council members did not immediately respond Tuesday to a request for comment:

Chris Wharton, who represents the Avenues neighborhood and the Capitol Hill area.

Eva Lopez Chavez, who represents downtown

Darin Mano, who represents the Ballpark and Liberty Wells neighborhoods.

Dan Dugan, who represents a swath of the east side.

Sarah Young, who represents Sugar House.

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