You CAN Comment at Committee of the Whole Meetings — Here’s Why You Didn’t Know That

Here’s an excerpt from a memo included with next week’s council meeting agenda:

The City of DeKalb maintains Chapter 2 of the City Code which governs the City Council and meetings thereof. Old versions of the City Code included provisions which purported to prohibit public comment at certain meetings of the City Council or Committee of the Whole. In 2014, the City Council adopted Section 2.04(d) of the City Code, which clearly denotes that the public has the right to speak at any public meeting of the City Council or any derivative body thereof, including the Committee of the Whole.

Nope, the Code specifically mentions the Planning & Zoning Commission but not Committee of the Whole (CoW).

That’s important because Chapter Two of the Municipal Code still includes exceptions to allowing public comment, particularly in the case of CoWs.

c) The intent and purpose of the Committee of the Whole meetings shall be primarily for the purpose of discussion of consideration items brought before the Council and various smatters which require a presentation and/or upon which discussion is anticipated, but not for the passage of Ordinances or Resolutions. Public comments shall generally not be permitted at such meetings, but rather shall be reserved for the City Council meeting immediately following such meetings. The Committee of the Whole meeting shall be treated as a meeting where public comment is not permitted under Section 2.12(ad) of this Code. (13-51)

CoW meetings are where city staff make their case to council about stuff they want. What they don’t want is for you to rebut their arguments and they’ve gone to some lengths to keep your voice out of these meetings. For years they just outright prohibited your comments. Then about six months ago, they changed the rules to abide by the Open Meetings Act (OMA) but took steps that essentially kept the changes secret.

I’ve put together a timeline for you.

September 2012: Word starts getting around about the change to the Open Meetings Act set to take effect in January 2013 that provides for public comments at all public meetings, even committee meetings.

October 2012: DeKalb council begins to look at new rules for public participation, including reserving for itself the right to prohibit public comment whenever it wants.

January 2013: I notify the city council that prohibiting public comment at the CoW meeting is a violation of the new Open Meetings Act provision.

Dear City Council Member:

I am writing you today to share a link to a newspaper article:

To summarize the story: The Winnebago County Board has begun to allow public comment at COMMITTEE meetings to comply with the Open Meetings Act.

Coincidentally, a federal judge has confirmed that public comment at these meetings is the law.

I took a look at the City Council Committee of Whole agenda this morning, and did not see a public comment section in it.

Also, a peek at the Municipal Code shows that a prohibition on public comment at CoWs is still on the books.

It would appear that the City of DeKalb is out of compliance with state law on this issue.

Please let me know whether you are willing to place an item on a City Council agenda to address public comment at CoWs. You are welcome to email or phone.

Thank you — and have a pleasant weekend.

I get zero responses.

August 2013: Council passes new Chapter 2 rules for public participation, but retains the illegal prohibitions on public comment under certain circumstances, including CoW meetings. Even the memo explaining the rules makes this clear:

III. Community Groups/Interested Parties Contacted:

This matter was extensively discussed at a Committee of the Whole meeting. Public comment may be provided at the City Council meeting.

October 2014: Council approves a new provision to Chapter 2 that finally — six months ago, a year and a half late — acknowledges the rights of citizens to comment at every public meeting. However, nobody knows about it because: a) it was passed as part of a omnibus consent agenda without recital or discussion; b) the city did not remove the illegal exceptions from the Municipal Code; and c) no item for public comment has yet appeared on the Committee of the Whole agenda.

April 2015: The Edgar County Watchdogs read the DeKalb Municipal Code and post an article about how DeKalb makes up its own rules for meetings. DeKalb decides to come clean in the face of this “misunderstanding.”