September 22, 2014
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Council moves public comment from last to first on its agenda

Members of the general public who wish to speak during the open microphone segment of the second monthly council meeting will no longer have to wait until the end of the meeting to express concerns relating to city issues. On Monday the council unanimously moved the open mic segment from the end of the meeting to the beginning.

“It’s actually something that has bothered me for a long time, even before I got elected to the council,” Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur said during a phone interview yesterday. Ladouceur sponsored legislation to amend Rule 41.

“I don’t think it’s right that the public should have to wait until the council is done with its business to be able to speak to us. They should be able to speak to us at the beginning of the meeting and be able to go on and do other things in their lives, or also stay to the end if they want.”

He said he heard complaints about the segment being at the end of meetings when he was campaigning. People told him they often neglect going to meetings because they don’t like having to wait several hours before getting a chance to speak.

Depending on what’s on the agenda, meetings often last several hours. A perfect example, he said, is Monday’s meeting, which ended after 11 p.m. He believes the modification will encourage people not only to attend the meetings, but also address the council.

“We owe that change to the taxpayers,” Ladouceur said. “People get worn out and say, ‘I can’t wait here any longer,’ and then they don’t get to speak. We’re going to get more participation from the public.”

Ward 3 Councilwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson, who drafted the original legislation providing an open mic segment, signed on to Ladouceur’s resolution. She said she agrees with the switch because some residents are unable to stay when meetings run late into the night. Often, people don’t feel safe driving that late or they have young children they need to care for.

Aside from an amendment that states the 15-minute period will take place after the docket session general communications and prior to the consent calendar at each council meeting, Vella-Wilkinson’s legislation remains the same. It lists that comments should be brief to allow as many citizens as possible to participate, and to focus on issues directly relating to city government. Council members are not to respond to questions during the public comment period.

Despite that fact, Ladouceur feels it’s still important to hear what people have to say.

“People are tired of this crazy stuff that goes on and they want to see more transparency in government,” he said. “They want to be able to have their voices heard, and our job is to listen to what they have to say. Then, as the elected official, it’s our job to figure it all out and do what’s in the best interest of everyone. But you need to hear what people have to say in order to make that decision.”

To further ensure people are heard, Ladouceur said he is pleased the council has been holding committee meetings in council chambers for the last few months. Previously, committee meetings took place in a small room located on the lower level of City Hall and were not recorded and posted to the city website along with the meeting in chambers. Now, both appear on the website for video and audio purposes.

Ladouceur said the change is an important one.

“Those meetings belong upstairs so anyone and everybody can come into the chambers and speak,” he said.

Vella-Wilkinson agrees, but said some residents say the acoustics in council chambers make it difficult to hear.

“I’m getting people saying to me that they can hear better downstairs,” she said. “It’s a much smaller room and the acoustics are a lot better.”

If acoustics are the issue, said Ladouceur, the council needs to figure out a way to fix the problem. He knows there are historical regulations as to what they can do, so he feels it would be wise for the council to sit down with the Historical Commission to find a remedy so people can hear better.

“We need to look at things and say, ‘What can we do to encourage public participation?’” Ladouceur said. “It’s important for us to encourage taxpayers to participate in their government. We’re elected on their behalf to make the day-to-day decisions that need to be made. They are a very important part of what we do, why we do it, how we do it and when we do it.”

Vella-Wilkinson said since the committee meetings are being recorded, residents can no longer shout from their seats, as they had been accustomed to. They now have to approach the microphone to make a comment, and be sure they are speaking directly into it so everyone can hear.

“You can’t turn your mouth from side to side,” she said. “Some people like to address the audience instead of the council and if they do that, what they say won’t be captured by the mic.”

To access video and audio, visit WarwickRI.gov.


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