Council plans another look at comment rules

FRUSTRATED — Third Ward Councilman Eric Timmons voiced frustration Tuesday at being back at square one on the rules for public comment, pointing they’d spent 45 minutes discussing changes at their Jan. 29 meeting “and didn’t get anywhere, and tonight we didn’t do much better.” -- Linda Harris

STEUBENVILLE — City Council will take another stab at amending its rules for public comments, though members made it clear Tuesday they want to avoid repeating the “fiasco” that led to them having to do it again.

Council had voted 7-0 last week to allow the general public to react to any item discussed by them, city administrators or department heads, only to have Mayor Jerry Barilla veto the amendment because it lacked clarity. Barilla said council needed to clearly state in the amendment whether members of the general public who want to react to topics discussed by city officials had to wait for the public comment period at the end of meetings or if they should be recognized in real time.

Fourth Ward Councilman Scott Dressel introduced a proposal that would require residents with questions or concerns to sign up by 2 p.m. the Monday preceding a council meeting, but would also permit anyone who wants to react to a topic or issue discussed at the meeting to do so during the public comment period prior to adjournment.

The existing rules cut sign-ups off at 4 p.m. the Friday before meetings and prohibit anyone who isn’t registered in advance from speaking.

Dressel said he “went over everybody’s comments and the charter as well” before drafting his proposal, pointing out it stops short of “opening it up to a (completely) open meeting, but it’s a little more open, so (the public) can at least talk about what’s going on at a meeting, which is pretty much everybody’s intent all along, I think.”

“If, for example, we had discussed the water tower, during the public forum if someone had a question about it they can (ask it) during the public forum,” Dressel said.

Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna said he sees no reason to change the rules, pointing out the system in place “worked for over a year.”

“The mayor was doing a good job handling it,” Villamagna said. “Then all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky it’s not working for the citizenry. I’m against it, clearly against it. I think the old way was perfect.”

Villamagna told Barilla he had no problem with him exercising his right to veto the Jan. 29 amendment, adding he was “a little disappointed in myself because I got frustrated and voted for” the amended amendment on Jan. 29.

First Ward Councilman Gerald DiLoreto agreed the original ordinance was working just fine.

“I think we’ve spent too much time on this,” DiLoreto said. “No one else has a public forum to my knowledge, not Congress or the state. I think it was working, and I’m not going to change my vote.”

Second Ward Councilman Craig Petrella described the lengthy, sometimes heated, discussion that preceded council’s Jan. 29 amendment as “a fiasco” and said after listening to the tape of that meeting, he realized council members were talking over each other.

“It seemed like somebody would be talking, but three or four people would jump in” and drown them out, he said. “It seemed like a three-ring circus.”

Petrella suggested council and administrators brush up on Robert’s Rules of Order, generally considered the standard for civil debate, “so we don’t have a debacle like we had last week.”

“If you need clarity, before the third reading we should get together and discuss it,” he added. “And, if we need an amendment, make sure it’s written this time so there are no misunderstandings.”

Councilwoman at large Kimberly Hahn circulated what was referred to as a “cheat sheet” of Robert’s Rules that council could refer to, and suggested Law Director Costa Mastro do a 30-minute tutorial for their edification.

“It’s something as professionals we ought to know,” Hahn said, saying it should be “a tool, not a bludgeon.”

“The purpose would be not to make things more difficult, but to make them run more smoothly,” she added.

Villamagna balked, pointing out the city has a law director to advise them.

“I think everybody should look (the handout) over first,” Dressel interjected.

“There are some things we’re doing wrong every week, but we’ve been doing them so long people think it’s normal.”

Third Ward Councilman Eric Timmons voiced frustration with the lack of progress, pointing out that “last week we spent 45 minutes (on it) and didn’t get anywhere, and tonight we didn’t do much better.”

Timmons said the key is ensuring members of the general public who have questions or comments direct them to council as a whole and refrain from personal attacks on department heads or businesses,

“At this point I don’t think it matters what type of rule we have,” Timmons added. “We just need rules enacted, and we also need the rules enforced.”

Following the public meeting, council met behind closed doors to discuss the contact of City Manager Jim Mavromatis, which expires March 23.

Petrella said council “should have been discussing it all along.”

“I don’t like having my back against the wall and then have someone tell me we’ve got to do it in five minutes. I don’t work that way,” Petrella said.

“We have serious problems in this city,” he added. “Each and every one of us should be serious about attacking those problems instead of playing games.

“If we have issues let’s attack them and move on.”