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O’Fallon adopts more robust rules for public hearings, meeting comments

On Oct. 24, the O’Fallon City Council approved by a vote of 10-0 new rules and procedures for public hearings and comments at its meetings.

The new resolution [No. 10-24-2019L] builds on an ordinance [No. 5609] that was passed by the council on July 9, 2010. That 2010 ordinance, still in effect, amended the city’s Municipal Code and covered the manner of addressing the city council during public hearings [decorum provisions] and enforcement of those rules.

Decorum provisions state: “Any person making personal attacks or slanderous remarks about another, or who shall become boisterous or disturb the order of the meeting while addressing the City Council or at any time during a Council meeting, may be forthwith barred by the Presiding Officer from further audience before the Council unless permission to continue is granted by a majority vote of the Council.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines slander as “The utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation.” Also as “A false and defamatory oral statement about a person ….” A personal attack is defined as “Making of an abusive remark instead of providing evidence when examining another person’s claims or comments.”

Enforcement of Decorum provisions state: “The Chief of Police, or such member or members of the Police Department as he/she may designate, shall be Sergeant at Arms of the City Council meetings. However, said attendance and function shall be subject to the discretion of the Presiding Officer of the City Council. As Sergeant of Arms, said member or members of the Police Department shall carry out all orders and instructions given by the Presiding Officer for the purpose of maintaining order and decorum at the City Council meeting.”

The resolution notes that public hearings are conducted in order to comply with procedural requirements, and so the council can benefit from information, views, analysis and opinions offered by various interested parties. However, those hearings are embedded as part of council meetings where other pressing public business also must be addressed. A balance is needed between the time allocated to the hearings and to the other matters in the public interest, and to assure that all interested persons have a reasonable opportunity to be heard via multiple means of communication.

The resolution included the 17 specific rules and procedure items listed verbatim below, including a time limit of 5 minutes per speaker, and avoidance of repetition of what others already have said.  Interested parties have the option to send comments in advance in writing, in lieu of speaking.

“This is well overdue,” said former council member Jim Pepper. “Having decorum is an absolutely necessity. Anyone who fails to adhere to common decency in that atmosphere deserves to be removed. It is incumbent on the presiding officer to maintain proper order. If he or she can’t, then the council should.”

New, detailed rules and procedures:

  1. “Prior to opening a public hearing or public comment on a specific matter the applicant who initiated the matter (including any sponsoring Council member or, if applicable, City department), if any, and who, therefore, bears the burden to show that the application should be granted or the proposed action taken, shall be afforded up to 10 minutes to make a presentation and submit any additional relevant documentary evidence not already made a part of the record pertaining to the matter.
  2. Following presentation of the applicant (if any) the public hearing or public comment proceedings on that subject shall be opened by the presiding officer.
  3. Each person desiring to speak during a hearing must submit a fully completed speaker card to the City Clerk prior to the time when the presiding officer closes the hearing. This allows the hearing to proceed in an orderly fashion, allows the record to accurately reflect the identification of speakers, and provides accurate contact information so the City can contact the speaker to respond, follow up or request additional information, etc.
  4. Each speaker shall be called to the podium by the City Clerk.
  5. All speakers shall confine their comments to only the specific subject of the hearing.
  6. Speakers shall not be repetitious, nor shall they be duplicative of comments already offered by others.
  7. Each participant in the hearing shall be allowed a maximum of five (5) minutes to address the Council.
  8. Each speaker may address the Council only once during any hearing.
  9. If any speaker violates the rules of the hearing after having been called to order or admonished by the presiding officer the speaker’s remaining time and privilege of participation may be forfeited.
  10. An applicant or sponsor with regard to the subject matter of the hearing shall be afforded the opportunity for rebuttal to conclude the hearing and shall have a maximum of five (5) minutes to respond to statements made by speakers and provide any relevant additional information.
  11. The hearing shall thereupon be concluded.
  12. Council members shall not ask questions of speakers during the time allotted to speakers unless recognized by the presiding officer for that purpose.
  13. Time devoted to asking and answering questions during a speaker’s presentation shall not be deducted from the time allotted to the speaker.
  14. If Council members have questions to put to a speaker after the speaker’s allotted time has expired the Council member may be recognized by the presiding officer for that purpose and the speaker’s time shall be extended for the duration of questions by the Council and responses by the speaker.
  15. Persons, including applicants, desiring to make their views known on the subject of any given hearing may submit written comments or documentary evidence prior to the start of the hearing, and are encouraged to do so.
  16. Notices of hearings shall include a reference to the desirability of written submissions and information as to how written statements and documentary evidence may be submitted.
  17. Written submissions received prior to or during the hearing shall be treated as part of the record of the proceedings, along with (a) any application at issue; (b) reports from any City advisory body or committee; (c) the O’Fallon City Charter and Municipal Code, and (d) materials lodged in City files pertaining to the subject at issue, all of which shall be automatically incorporated in the record of the proceedings.”
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