At its Sept. 24 meeting, the Wildwood City Council unanimously voted 16-0 for the preparation of legislation spearheaded by Councilmember Steve Taylor [Ward 4], which has since been dubbed the “Free Speech Amendment.”
Taylor’s legislation, which is scheduled to receive its first reading at the Oct. 8 council meeting, would amend the rules of the Wildwood City Council to change the public procedure process and allow residents to ask direct questions to and receive answers from the councilmembers.
“They would be able to ask a direct question, and if an elected official wished to give a brief response they could do so as directed by the mayor,” Taylor said at the Sept. 24 meeting, during which he took to the public comment podium to discuss the amendment. “… Our current rules forbid a resident from asking a councilmember a question during a meeting like this. Such a question, which would have the benefit of being on the record and livestreamed for the edification of the public is shunted into a one-on-one communication dynamic between the resident and their councilperson. Such communication is valuable but does not replace the transparency of an on the record inquiry. At best, questions to the council may sometimes be addressed by an anonymous employee on the city’s website. Yet, the mayor can, at his discretion, offer insight and points of clarification in response to questions or comments during these meetings.”
On Sept. 11, the Administration/Public Works Committee voted 4 to 2 in favor of the amendment with the intent of legislation being placed on the council’s Sept. 24 work session agenda.
According to Taylor, Mayor Jim Bowlin reached out to him and informed him the amendment would not be placed on the Sept. 24 work session agenda, but would be postponed until the Oct. 8 council meeting due to Bowlin being out of town. Bowlin stated in an email that he feared the amendment might be “out of order.”
Taylor reacted to the mayor’s delay, by saying from the podium on Sept. 24: “Moreover, the mayor’s concerns with the amendment was flawed in that it was critical of language currently in the code an did not have anything to do with the legislation’s new wording. Regardless, any such issues should be addressed by the council as the city’s legislative body.”
With Councilmember Joe Garritano [Ward 8] serving as mayor pro tem as well as the chairman of the public works committee, the council unanimously voted to prepared the legislation for its first reading at the Oct. 8 city council meeting.
Currently, citizens are allowed to question councilmembers or the mayor during the council’s public comment period, but answers or responses are usually follow-ups after the meeting or posted to the city’s official website.
The new amendment brought forth by Taylor states the general public shall be afforded an opportunity to address the council during the portion of the order of business set aside for public participation. Any person wanting to address the council still will be required to identify themselves and state their home address or place of business. Councilmembers desiring further information or comment from the speaker or from any other person in the audience should request the same through the mayor. Abusive or threatening remarks from the public may be closed off at any time by the direction of the mayor, and the mayor also may establish procedures and rules governing public participation.
By majority vote, the council can opt to suspend or change the procedures and rules for public participation for a specific or future meeting. A member of the public may ask a direct question of a member of the council or the mayor, and if the mayor or councilmember wants to respond, they may offer a brief response as facilitated by the mayor, according to the amendment.
According to Councilmember Tim Woerther [Ward 7], residents also could ask questions and receive answers from councilmembers from different administrations prior to April 2016. Woerther served as a former mayor of the city.
Councilmember Greg Stine [Ward 7] pointed out: “Regardless, if we’re using the current language or the proposed language that Councilmember Taylor is bringing forward, we still have to be recognized by the mayor … or the facilitator of the meeting. That’s how it was with Mayor Woerther. I think the policy was, if a councilmember felt like they needed to respond or they wanted to respond, unless we were pressed for time or we’d beaten a question to death, [they] were given the ability to respond. I think that’s a good practice.”
Councilmember Tammy Shea [Ward 3] thought the new amendment was an example of “healthy engagement” for city council meetings.
“It’s not your ability to ask a question, it’s your ability to get a response, not even an answer, because as some have pointed out, we don’t always know the answer,” Shea said. “The benefit of [getting a response] is that you’re recognized as an integral part of the proceeding, and you don’t just get a blank stare.”