‘Because we can’: SLC Council rams through public comment restrictions

Change comes with little notice and little opportunity for input from constituents.

After offering almost no notice and providing little opportunity for input, the Salt Lake City Council adopted new restrictions on public comment during its meetings.

The council voted 6-0 on Tuesday night for a new policy that will limit the general public comment period at meetings to one hour and expand options to submit comments by video. The changes do not affect public comment periods required by state law, such as those on budget matters and land use issues.

On Monday, the council revised the formal meeting agenda that had already been posted to include the consideration of a resolution to amend public comment rules. City staffers recommended the council “suspend the rules and adopt” the changes immediately, effectively shutting down any meaningful chance for constituents to weigh in.

Asked early Tuesday why the council would not 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.”

Public comment restrictions follow backlash

The decision to fast-track restrictions on 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.

The council voted to approve the changes to public comment Tuesday night after outbursts from the audience twice halted the meeting. Those in the crowd shouted “shame on you,” “cowards” and “fascists” at the city’s legislative body.

Council member Chris Wharton, who was leading the meeting, canceled public comment for the rest of the evening and directed security to clear the council chambers so members could continue without disruption. Council member Darin Mano, who represents the Ballpark and Liberty Wells neighborhoods, was not present for the meeting.

The agenda item to change the comment policy appeared with no drafted language and contained no materials for public review until Tuesday.

When introducing the changes at the formal meeting, Wharton, who represents the Avenues neighborhood and Capitol Hill area, read from a prepared statement that the new rules preserve the city’s ability to conduct business and maintain a safe and welcoming environment for constituents.

Not trying to ‘sneak in’ changes

Earlier Tuesday, Petro said the changes are about Utah’s capital growing into its new identity as a larger city with a greater number of residents who want to remark on a variety of issues. She said council members remain approachable by phone, email and social media.

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

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. He said he wants to ensure meetings are safe for everyone and free from abuse.

Asked early Tuesday about why the council might forgo (which it ultimately did) 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.”

Indeed, the council did take up the issue at its work session, a meeting held before the formal meeting that is publicly accessible but does not provide for public comment.

There, members discussed, among other things, the potential of limiting the number of commenters, requiring groups to designate a spokesperson to address a particular issue, and the possibility of implementing a residency requirement.

“I’m happy that we are processing this in full public view so that every constituent may see access to all of our deliberations,” Petro said during the work session. “It’s really important to point out that this is not something we’re trying to sneak in. This is something we are committed to, and this city is committed to being a paragon of protecting the First Amendment.”

Before introducing the policy changes at the formal meeting, the council rearranged the agenda to put its resolution ahead of the general comment section. Activists had planned to again call on the council to adopt a cease-fire resolution.