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City Council hosts special meeting on changing public comment rules

A+Fort+Collins+city+member+holds+up+a+sign+reading+%E2%80%9CYou+Arndt+Listening%21%E2%80%9D+in+a+meeting+called+by+Fort+Collins+City+staff+March+18.
Collegian | Julia Percy
A Fort Collins community member holds up a sign reading “You Arndt Listening!” in a meeting called by City of Fort Collins staff March 18. Residents expressed their opinions on the proposed changes to public comment at future meetings.

The Fort Collins City Council hosted over 90 people who had signed up to speak during public comment at a special meeting held to address a proposed resolution that would change the rules of public comment at regular city council meetings. Attendees voiced nearly unanimous dissent with the resolution. 

The special meeting took place March 18 at City Hall. The objective of the meeting was “to ensure that council is able to effectively execute the business of the city as a legislative policy-making body and also hear from the public,” according to a presentation given by Assistant City Manager Rupa Venkatesh. 

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Data from other Colorado cities as well as Laramie, Wyoming, were included in a table, detailing each city’s current procedures regarding public comment. Venkatesh also defined the proposed changes and what would remain the same.

“The intent for this update was to be permissive, to allow for council to allow for public comment and nonagenda-related items,” Venkatesh said. “General public comment is not being limited — it’s just the consideration of the order of public comment.”

Residents in attendance made comments in favor of and against the resolution and the proposed changes. Numerous community members quoted the council’s emails in which public comment was referenced.

“(Public comment) is truly the bedrock of our democracy,” Fort Collins resident Sterling Linville read from an email sent by the council.

This statement was echoed by other members of the Fort Collins community. Many residents, including Isabela Zapata, said the limiting of public comment is antidemocratic.

“Council prioritizes its own interests and comfort above its constituents,” Zapata said. “Limiting public comment to preapproved items is antidemocratic and emblematic of why many in this country and Fort Collins are losing faith in our system at all levels of government.”

“We have to be very careful to not limit any resident public feedback to us. That’s what we’re here for, and I’m going to guard diligently against that.” -Kelly Ohlson, Fort Collins city council member

Those who spoke at the meeting also made references to previous council meetings along with their conduct.

Ash, a Fort Collins resident who declined to provide a last name, spoke about previous instances.

“(The) last time I spoke, my mic was cut midspeech,” Ash said. “Now some of you want to cut the mic on democratic participation altogether. That is unacceptable.”

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Though it was not the focus of the meeting, many residents used their time to speak about the council’s decision to vote against a resolution for a ceasefire in Gaza.

“Not only was our request for a ceasefire resolution ignored against the recommendation of your own (Human Rights Commission), but now you’re seeking to pass an antidemocratic resolution and what appears to be a punitive response to our civic engagement,” Fort Collins resident Quinn Miller said. “If the council is not responding to the majority of people who speak in front of it, whose interests are they representing?”

Though the majority of public comment was against the proposed changes, there were some who spoke in favor of the resolution, including U.S. Army veteran Derrin Evans.

“Your guys’ job is to do the business and manage the city, not respond to every emotional impulse of us as constituents,” Evans said.

Colorado State University student Taryn Dowden discussed how the resolution is intended to ensure safety and civility in the chamber and how limiting public comment is not the way to do that.

“This decision is obviously a punitive action based on the emotional outbursts from the last meeting, where we were expected to remain completely unemotional and not react to the fact that we have been ignored by our supposedly elected officials,” Dowden said. 

After public comment, council members shared their thoughts on the resolution and potential options. 

“How do we balance hearing from folks and getting through our agenda items in a timely manner?” Mayor Pro Tem Emily Francis said while addressing the purpose of the resolution.

The council proposed allotting 60 minutes for public comment at the beginning of each meeting, which would be followed by discussion of agenda items and further time for public comment after the agenda. 

Mayor Jeni Arndt and other council members were not in favor of the resolution.

“One of the motivators behind making a proposal was to make sure that we hear every single voice,” Arndt said. “It is the bedrock of democracy, and I stand by that. … I also want to sincerely thank you for coming out, defending your right to free speech. … We are not a city without you.”

Councilmember Kelly Ohlson expanded on some of the reservations voiced during the meeting.

“We have to be very careful to not limit any resident public feedback to us,” Ohlson said. “That’s what we’re here for, and I’m going to guard diligently against that.”

Reach Aubree Miller at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @CSUCollegian.

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  • S

    Sterling Hunter LinvilleMar 20, 2024 at 11:17 pm

    My name is Sterling Linville. I am quoted in this article. For the sake of factual accuracy, I am a former resident, I had to move in August to temporarily stay with family due to my health condition. I spent most of my childhood and adollecence in FoCo. Went to Rocky. Of my adult life I lived in FoCo since 2018 until this past august. I still regard FoCo as my home town and my community.

    It would be most accurately corrected “former long time resident”

    Reply
  • K

    Kate ForgachMar 20, 2024 at 10:54 am

    What a well-written article! This offers a good balance against the local daily’s propensity to write Council-related stories based on press releases from the City. Token references I of opposition are usually buried “beneath the fold,” as we used to say.

    As a retired journalist, one-time Collegian reporter and recent subscriber, I’m so happy to see your team picking up the torch. Thank you.

    Reply