The Overland Park City Council, this month for the first time, began allowing the public to speak at open comment periods, something every other Johnson County city offers.
But after only two meetings, some officials want to add a few limits — changes that are particularly noticeable during the pandemic as more people watch meetings online.
The changes include turning off the camera when it’s time for public comments, removing the comment sessions from the Livestream broadcast and official meeting minutes, and possibly moving them to the end of meetings, which at times run until after 10 or 11 p.m.
Councilman Fred Spears, who proposed the changes, told The Star that the intent of the sessions is for residents to bring up issues with the council, not the entire community. Spears and the rest of the committee that oversees council rules directed staff to draft the changes to the policy.
“I want to hear from people who want to talk about issues and concerns they have that we can remedy,” Spears said. “I’m concerned that if we broadcast it, we’ll just get a lot of people promoting themselves and their issues that we can’t address as a city
But the idea angered some residents, especially as protesters attend meetings to demand accountability and transparency.
“It’s disgraceful,” said Sheila Albers, whose 17-year-old son John was shot and killed by an Overland Park police officer in 2018. “We were the last municipality in Johnson County to make public comments happen, and now because there’s been some criticism, members of the City Council want to change it. It stifles public engagement and does the community a complete disservice.”
“We aren’t trying to shut out any voices,” Spears countered. “We want as many people to bring up their concerns as possible.”
For years, Overland Park considered offering an open public comment period, allowing people to speak on any topic at meetings. Previously, residents could only speak about items on the meeting agenda.
The majority of cities in Johnson County, along with the county itself, broadcast public comments. Olathe, however, turns off the Livestream before the open comment period at the end of council meetings.
A HEATED COUNCIL MEETING
Spears proposed ending the broadcast of public comments in response to protesters taking over a heated City Council meeting on Aug. 17, which he called a “debacle” at this month’s meeting of the finance committee, which oversees the council rules.
Protesters attended the August meeting thinking, incorrectly, that they would have an opportunity to address the City Council.
They wanted to speak out about a $70,000 severance payment given to the officer who shot John Albers. A month after the shooting, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe announced that his office would not file charges. Federal authorities are now investigating the shooting, the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed Thursday.
Many demonstrators also wanted the names of the officers who arrested four people at a protest in July, when police were allowed to not wear their identification badges due to doxxing concerns, according to the department. The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas issued a letter to the police department, saying it had an “overly reactive and militarized response” during the event.
At the City Council meeting, the protesters were informed that public comments would not be a regular part of the agenda until Sept. 14. Demonstrators then resorted to shouting over the entire meeting while the City Council attempted to conduct its regular business.
On Sept. 14, when protesters were given their first opportunity to address officials, council members agreed the meeting went well and was orderly.
“My concerns didn’t come to fruition. It was handled much better than I thought it would be, based on the behavior we saw at the earlier council meeting,” Spears said at the committee meeting. Still, he proposed removing public comments from the record, saying he was concerned “about people proselytizing,” using the podium to push a political agenda, attack others or disclose private information.
He said broadcasting the public’s comments “would allow some people to get a much bigger forum that would not be positive for the city.”
When asked to clarify, Spears told The Star that, “this is not a means to stifle anybody at all. The focus is to have the public direct their comments to the council.”
Councilman Paul Lyons supported the change and said that he worries “people are going to want to participate in these meetings because there’s an audience,” giving “more opportunities for people to try to exploit that.”
“Having that person’s comments broadcast and then recorded in the minutes that are kept in perpetuity, I think that could be problematic down the road,” he said at the meeting.
But the city already has a plan for dealing with the broadcast of potentially offensive or libelous comments at meetings, said Kristy Stallings, deputy city manager.
“Our staff has the ability to, if things become inappropriate, to immediately cut the feed of the video if that were to become a problem,” she said. “We already have a plan for that.”
Despite that, the finance committee, instructed staff to draft a plan to make the change to public comments, which will likely be considered at its meeting next month. Council members also proposed other changes, including requiring residents to sign up to speak before a meeting, which is common practice in other municipalities.
Council members could also discuss moving public comments to the end of meetings. Several municipalities allow the public to speak after the regular agenda is finished, but the idea still angered some, who worry they would have to wait for hours. Many are not attending meetings in person, or staying at them for long, due to the pandemic.
Councilman Chris Newlin said he would support moving the comment period to the end of meetings if the city would give it more time. Right now, 30 minutes are set aside at the beginning of meetings.
He said that the changes were “telling the public we’re not trying to quell public comments, we’re trying to enhance it. We’re trying to make sure (we) do the right thing so when you come forward with an issue we’re able to advance that issue properly for you.”
In an interview, Newlin said he is undecided on whether he would support ending the broadcast of public comments. He said he shares some of the concerns that residents have brought up, but added that the City Council is “not trying to shut out any voices.”
‘PODIUM FOR EVERYBODY’
But some didn’t take the proposed changes that way.
“You’re an elected official. You should be finding ways to build rapport and open discussions with constituents, not avoid them,” Albers said. “And turning off the cameras and not livestreaming them says that they’re trying to suppress concerns being shared by particular community members. … They’re actually inhibiting constituents from communicating with one another.”
Jae Moyer, who frequently protests for racial equality and LGBTQ rights, worries “the Overland Park City Council doesn’t want to listen to its residents about the things we’re concerned about.”
“It feels like we’re taking one step forward and two steps back with this.”
Councilman Faris Farassati, who was pushing for the open sessions since last year, argued that “this is public comments. It’s in the name. It should be public and broadcast.”
“This is a podium for everybody. This is not political. If somebody comes and expresses hate speech, we have mechanisms to deal with that. But you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. It would be a significant blow to the freedom of speech in Overland Park.”
In an interview, Spears countered that, “Our goal is to hear from our residents and get good information in front of us — good, bad, warts and all. But this is designed for the community to communicate with the council. That’s how I see it.”
Councilman John Thompson, who chairs the finance committee, warned against changing the rules so soon. He said at the meeting that the purpose of the public comment period is for residents to speak directly to the council, “so we don’t want to be frustrating that purpose.”
“There’s a lot of us that felt we’re trying to be open and trying to be transparent in the way in which we are accepting feedback, whether it’s by email or by phone calls. This is just another avenue that is occurring,” he said.
Newlin said that the committee had previously scheduled a time at its September meeting to discuss any changes to the public comment period. Council members emphasized that they are only considering the proposed changes, and nothing has been decided yet.
The next finance committee is 7 p.m. Oct. 21 at City Hall. If the committee were to agree on any changes, they would go to the full City Council for final approval.