The Normal Town Council unanimously approved new rules for public comment Monday night, but not without resistance from its newest members.
Previously the town’s ordinance allowed residents to notify staff that they’d like to speak during public comment up to two hours before the start of a meeting.
Council members voted to narrow that cutoff to 15 minutes. But for Council Members Karyn Smith and Stan Nord, the change didn’t go far enough.
Smith proposed the town allow residents to give as little as 1 minute’s notice to speak. That motion narrowly failed, 3-to-4, with Smith, Nord and Council Member Scott Preston voting yes.
Smith also proposed the town eliminate the requirement that residents’ comments relate to a meeting agenda item; that motion failed too, 2-to-5, with only Smith and Nord voting yes.
Smith said the town denied her the opportunity to speak about the Trail East project under that provision early this year.
With the council choosing not to designate three buildings slated for demolition as historic sites, the proposal could move forward without the need for another council vote. Smith said that meant effectively preventing further comment on the project, despite changes to the proposed building’s design.
She said she filed a complaint with the state’s attorney general, and her case is currently awaiting review.
“I’m hoping that there will be a positive response from the attorney general, and rather than wait for that response, I’m asking that we proactively as a council strike this and make the council meetings open to the public to discuss whatever they desire,” she said.
Nord supported both recommendations so as to “err on the side of giving the people an easier opportunity to talk with us,” he said. “If we’re going to err, let’s err in favor of the people, always.”
Smith isn’t the only resident to lodge a complaint against the town’s public comment policies: Craig Stimpert said he faced a similar situation in 2016. At the time the town imposed a 45-day waiting period on public speakers. After the attorney general’s office ruled in his favor, the town dropped the rule in 2017.
Stimpert took issue Monday night with the so-called “germaine” rule, asking who defines what’s relevant to the agenda. He also said while the 15-minute cutoff is an improvement, he didn’t see why speakers couldn’t just sign up on a sheet of paper at the meeting.
“I have personally witnessed council members showing up late to meetings, missing role call and the pledge, so I know some of you are not arriving 15 minutes prior to the start of each meeting,” he said. “Why would you hold public comment speakers to a higher standard?”
Preston admitted he’s been guilty of arriving late to meetings, and voted to support a 1-minute cutoff.
Mayor Chris Koos said he suggested the 15-minute requirement to give the town clerk enough time to record the speakers’ information.
City Manager Pam Reece explained a 1-minute cutoff could present an administrative issue when a liquor commission meeting or special presentation precedes a council meeting.
“That just makes it very tight, so that would be the biggest concern. What about when we are all up here (on the dais) in advance of a 7 p.m. council meeting?” she said.
Council Member Kathleen Lorenz asked her colleagues not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
“I think let’s try this and let’s get used to 15 minutes, and see how that works, and once we get really good at it cut it down to 10, or 5 if we think that some folks are at a disadvantage from that,” she said.
Council Member Kevin McCarthy said the public has plenty of opportunities to make themselves heard, not just at council meetings.
“We’re available by email, we’re available by phone, I’ve met many people, including Mr. Stimpert who spoke tonight, at The Coffeehouse to listen to his input face-to-face,” he said. “I got a better understanding of Mr. Stimpert’s perspective of some of the concerns he had, and I know the rest of this council does the same.”
Nord and Smith also united in calls for Connect Transit to reconsider scheduled fare increases and the elimination of the Olive route, with Nord voting against the town’s budgeted regular payment to the agency.
Smith said after examining the provisions of a 2012 memorandum of understanding with the City of Bloomington and Connect Transit, she believes the town could recall the agency’s budget, prompting its board of trustees and newly formed working group to re-evaluate the changes.
Town Attorney Brian Day said he’s currently in discussions with legal counsel from both the city and Connect Transit on the matter.
“Just looking at the overall purpose of the contract, the contract itself sets out the specific duties of the board, and one of those duties is to create, alter, or eliminate any routes,” Day said. He added the memorandum doesn’t require the board to seek approval to make those changes.
Reece said the route cut was a data-driven decision. In a 6-month period from fall 2018 to spring 2019, Connect Transit found the Olive route averaged zero daily riders at 12 of its 41 stops, she said. Another 15 stops averaged less than two daily riders.
And each of the three stops averaging a significant number of riders—the Walmart stop, the Orlando Avenue stop and the Fort Jesse Road stop near OSF Medical Group—are all covered by other routes, Reece said.
Smith said she suspects those numbers may not reflect the impact of eliminating the Olive route if the data was collected during winter months when bad weather negatively affects ridership.
Both Koos and Reece said the town is working with Connect Transit to find a time for General Manager Isaac Thorne to make a public presentation and take questions from the council.
The Connect Transit Board of Trustees will meet in the Town Council chambers at Uptown Station at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to consider the recommendation of “Connect to the Future” working group members, among other matters.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated from its original version to clarify the three votes related to public comment.
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