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Public Speakers Ask Council for More Than Minutes

Warwick City Hall
Warwick City Hall
Warwick City Hall.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified Tina Langill. Warwick Post had corrected, and regrets, the error. 

WARWICK, RI — The Warwick City Council expanded public speaking time during its meetings at its first regular 2023 session Jan. 4, but public speakers aired other criticisms of the opportunity.

The agenda item concerned changes to the Council’s rules of order, including to Rule 41: public comment, increasing speakers’ time to speak at the start of a meeting on any topic, from 15 minutes to 30 minutes, with 5 minutes allotted to each speaker.

“We want to be able to give residents, so that they know when they come, if they want to speak under Rule 41, they will have five minutes,” said City Council President Steve McAllister.

He noted the open speaking time is separate from the public comment time given to any individual on any topic as those items are addressed on the City Council agenda.

“Each and every resident has an opportunity to speak on every single topic that comes before the City Council. And that is a 10 minutes, per person, maximum, to speak on an issue,” McAllister said.

Public speakers who regularly use public comment to address their concerns during Council meetings raised other concerns about the Council’s treatment of them.

Rob Cote, frequent City government critic and regular speaker, noted that five minutes isn’t adequate for some topics.

“So that’s ridiculous,” Cote said of the 5-minute maximum.

Public speakers: Interruptions, time limit critiques; dialog sought

Cote also objected to the City Clerk interrupting public comment to note the number of minutes left to them.

“We do not need the City Clerk to keep telling us the time. We all have watches,” Cote said, noting the practice interrupts people’s train of thought. He added that it is also ignorant and socially unacceptable.

“You just don’t want people to come here and speak.”

Cote also said that Rule 20, providing 10 minutes for speaking, should be clarified to prevent Council members’ filibustering from counting against the public speaker’s time.

“You get up here and you filibuster, just to shut us up.” Cote said.

Cote then asked if Council members had watched meetings and recognized how ignorant they appear, prompting McAllister to tell him not to insult the council. Cote said he’d continue to insult, within his First Amendment rights “And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

McAllister called a 5-minute recess.

“I’m not done,” Cote protested.

When the meeting resumed and Cote continued, he asked for the City Council to amend its rules to discuss the fiscal deficit monthly. He then revisited the public speaking rules.

“Let me close by saying this. I have come here as a gentleman to discuss issues on Rule 41 numerous times. I’ve been victimized by being short-circuited, cut off, interrupted repeatedly, even during Rule 41 when it says the Council members can’t speak. I think that the council really needs to revisit what a taxpayer’s First Amendment right consists of, and not trample upon it. Because it’s happened repeatedly.”

Barry Cook suggested expanding the public speaking time to a 60-minute maximum, with each person getting a maximum of 5 minutes. He also asked them to reconsider the rule preventing responses from the Council as a person is speaking.

“When the Council doesn’t respond, that’s not open government. That’s not transparent government. That’s not doing what you suggested, Mr. McAllister – creating a better opportunity for our citizens to participate,” Cook said.

“When we come up here and speak and you people don’t respond, that is not good governance.” Rather, Cook said, “That’s a discouragement from participation.”

Tina Langill asked the Council to allow remote options for people to offer public comment.

“I would ask that you consider an option for folks who have child care, physical difficulties, transportation challenges, work related scheduling that prohibits them from attending these committees and these council meetings,” she said.

Langill suggested providing an opportunity for people to engage via email, or an online form, with a neutral party reading the comments into the public record.

Debate: Amendments fail, rules reassessed in two years

During debate, Councilman Ed Lacouceur attempted two failed amendments making it to a vote, to strike the 15-minute public speaking time limit and to make the common practice of not counting Councillor comment against a public speaker’s time.

Councilmen Bill Foley, McAllister, and Howe all argued against the amendment, noting they followed that practice at their discretion. McAllister said the Council will have another chance to alter the rules two years, during the next Council session.

“If we’re all doing it, why is everybody concerned about putting it in paper. Why is everybody so concerned about that?” Ladouceur asked.

The amendment failed, with Donna Travis, Foley, McAllister, Howe, and James McElroy voting against.

Ladouceur also proposed an amendment to change the unanimous vote to extend the public speaking time to a majority vote, which also failed, again with Foley, McAllister, Gebhardt, Howe, Travis, McElroy, Sinapi and Travis voting against.

“If one person shows up, ‘we’re prepared for that. If 10 people show up, we’re prepared for that, too, but everyone gets the same time. We have to be consistent,” McAllister said. He noted that if more than six people show up to speak, a unanimous vote can add time according to the rules.

McAllister called for questions, then a vote on the rules, which passed with all but Ladouceur voting for them. Ladouceur protested during his vote that McAllister had not given him a chance to make a final comment, which Solicitor Walsh has said would be a final step before the vote. After the vote, he made a motion to reconsider, which was seconded by Rix.

“I think, on something like the Council rules, I do want to hear what Councilman Ladouceur has to say,” he said.

Though the reconsider vote could have happened immediately, McAllister intervened.

“I’m going to hold that rollcall vote at this time out of courtesy to Councilman Ladouceur, to allow him to speak on PCR 1-23,” McAllister said.

Ladouceur said he didn’t agree that five minutes are enough to make one’s point, particularly if a dialogue is involved.

“You ask one question and get an answer. It leads to something else,” he said. However, he said, he voted against it in haste.

The motion to reconsider failed, and the vote approving the rules stood.

Rob Borkowski
Author: Rob Borkowski

Rob has worked as reporter and editor for several publications, including The Kent County Daily Times and Coventry Courier, before working for Gatehouse in MA then moving home with Patch Media. Now he's publisher and editor of Contact him at [email protected] with tips, press releases, advertising inquiries, and concerns.

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