April 10, 2020
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Portland council could make the public comment process more difficult

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Portland City Council is voting on changes that would restrict certain types of public comment on local laws and ordinances.

PORTLAND, Maine — Public comment could be limited under a proposal that city councilors considered Wednesday.

The amendments would push the public comment window on non-agenda items from the beginning of City Council meetings — between 5:30 and 6 p.m. — to the end of them, sometimes several hours later. It would also restrict the public from commenting on proposed changes to ordinances except when they are first heard by City Council, meaning they’d often no longer be able to comment on the night of the vote.

The changes could limit news outlets and advocacy groups from being able to inform the public on local issues until after the comment period has passed.

Other restrictions would limit public comment before City Council on items that are considered before a smaller committee.

Additional language would broaden the types of expression that would result in ejection from City Council meetings. Prior language prohibited “scurrilous or abusive” comments and the amendments would add to that any behavior that “causes or incites disruption” or “prevents the council from doing business.”

It also introduces language that states police may remove those in violation.

“I have serious concerns that these rule changes are intended to stifle democratic process and limit the public’s access to city councilors,” said Drew Christopher Joy, executive director of the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, a labor rights advocacy group in Portland. “This will disproportionately impact working-class and marginalized people who are less likely to have one-on-one meetings or other insider access.”

Shifting public comment to the end of City Council meetings could strain those who use public transit. After 9:20 p.m., the frequency of bus stops near City Hall slows from once per half-hour to once per hour.

The City Council was set to hear public comment on the proposed amendments at the meeting at City Hall at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Proposed amendments to council procedure not related to the public comment session include expanding the finance committee to four members, plus the mayor as an ex-officio voting member, from its current total of three.


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