At its Oct. 22 meeting, the Wildwood City Council gave a second reading and approval to Bill No. 2403, nicknamed the “Free Speech Amendment.”
The ordinance was spearheaded by Councilmember Steve Taylor [Ward 4] with the twofold goal of allowing individuals attending city council meetings to ask specific councilmembers direct questions at the podium during the public comments portion, and also allow councilmembers to issue direct replies to those questions.
The ordinance passed on a 12-4 council vote.
Although residents could always ask councilmembers questions from the podium during public comments portion of council meetings, prior to the amendment, council members answered questions after the meeting or posted answers to the city’s official website.
Also according to Taylor, the so-called Free Speech Amendment changed the official language in the city code that stated questions posed at the podium during public comment had to be directed to the mayor. Following the legislation’s passage on Oct. 22, public commenters can now direct questions to specific councilmembers, and time will be set aside at the end of each meeting’s public comment section for councilmembers to respond accordingly if they wish or have the capability to do so.
Taylor thought the passage of the bill was an example of “civil discussion and debate” within the city.
“I think, in the long run, there was a tremendous amount of support,” Taylor said. “Twelve councilmembers in favor is a lot of support.”
Although the council previously voted unanimously on two previous occasions to have the amendment placed on the council’s agenda, some councilmembers expressed concern at its second reading due to a recently added sentence that states: “The Council may, by majority vote, suspend or change the procedures and rules for public participation for a particular meeting and or future meetings.”
The concern was that the sentence would prompt changing public participation rules at every meeting or prompt potential unfairness.
“My concern for that [sentence] was the fact that I could see that having us, having the council, in the position of potentially being looked at as having shown favoritism one way or another,” Councilmember Larry McGowen [Ward 1] said. “… if I was sitting in the audience, I would want to see consistency with how generally the city conducts its meetings …”
Other councilmembers, including Taylor, fought for the retention of the sentence.
“I don’t think we have any jeopardy here,” Taylor said on Oct. 22. “I think it’s working well. I know that Mr. Mayor [Jim Bowlin] and some have had concerns that we don’t want to change the rules that often, but I’d like to note that the sentence in question says that the council can change the rules with a majority vote. I would suggest that’s a guardrail. I would suggest that means the rules cannot be changed unless there is consent by the majority of the council, and in fact, that’s what the situation would be.”
A motion made by McGowen to amend the proposed ordinance by deleting the sentence failed on an 11-5 vote.
“I think we’re [the city of Wildwood] leading the way,” Taylor said of the bill’s passage. “I think this is going to be a release valve.”