Public speaking time still 3 min.

Published 7:02 am Friday, May 20, 2016

More than half of Bogalusa’s Tuesday city council meeting was a debate over whether or not members of the public should be allowed to speak for five minutes instead of three minutes, the current time limit.

Councilwoman Gloria Kates introduced a resolution that would have extended the current time limit on public discussion by two minutes. The board voted against her resolution 4-3, with Kates, Brian McCree and Tamira Smith voting for the extension and Doug Ritchie, Sherry Fortenberry, Andy Deleon and Teddy Drummond voting no.

When introducing her resolution, Kates said she wanted to extend the time limit after a city council member mentioned on social media a desire to limit public participation.

“There was one particular comment made by one particular council person on Facebook that said ‘I am working on having less public participation,’” Kates said, reading from a piece of paper.

After the meeting, Kates emailed The Daily News a screenshot of that conversation between Fortenberry and a friend of hers. Fortenberry complained about the “complainers” who come to the meetings, she said she would “pray for them,” and she said that with limited public participation the “meeting will go smoother.”

In an interview after the meeting, Fortenberry explained that she will not introduce any resolutions that will change public participation. However, she said she will begin following the existing rules on time limits, and she will limit public as well as council commentary on resolutions and ordinances.

Fortenberry pointed out that in 2003 Kates’ own husband, who was then on the city council, offered a resolution that limits everyone on the council and in public to three minutes per topic. That resolution also says that when the public arrives to speak on an issue, “groups interested in an agenda item should select a spokesperson to represent the views of the group.”

Meaning, Fortenberry explained, each group that comes to speak on a matter before the board must now designate a spokesperson. Fortenberry is council president, and she pointed out that under rules of procedure she determines how the meetings are run and what rules get followed. She said that after a recent meeting that lasted over two hours, she decided to begin following the 2003 rules.

“We have not been doing it, and the meetings have been lasting a lot longer than they should last,” she said. “I want to hear what the public has to say. I am very interested in what the public has to say. But once it’s said, then, OK, we get the point. It doesn’t have to be repetitious over and over and over again.”

The 2003 rule could also significantly alter council discussion, as it says, “no member of the council or the mayor may speak the second time on any subject until every member has had an opportunity to speak the first time.”

In addition, “all council members and the mayor should limit their remarks on each subject to three minutes unless otherwise approved by the council president.”

Fortenberry added that the rule does not limit the number of people who can sign up to speak during the public participation period toward the end of the meeting.

However, she repeated that in her two years on the board, she has seen too much negativity in the community and she would like members of the community to arrive with some solutions and not just gripes.

“In two years there’s been a lot of negative responses from the public participation,” she said. “If they would take that negative stuff and turn it into positive stuff, we would have a better council meeting.

“I am not talking about anybody particular. I am talking about our town. These people need to get a more positive attitude about our town as a whole.”

The council’s decision to keep public participation to three minutes did not sit well with some citizens at Tuesday’s meeting.

Council meeting regular Fate Ferrell pointed out that the council members are paid to listen to the public.

“Trying to deny us time to talk, that is totally wrong,” he said. “Plus, you all get paid to sit up there, and if you can’t stand to hear us talk for five minutes then I don’t think you should hold that seat.”

Joel Miller, Marvin Austin and Warren Bolds also spoke out in agreement with Kates’ proposition.

“I noticed that none of the people who spoke just now even reached three minutes. Three minutes is a lot longer than you think it is,” said Drummond, after everyone from the public had spoken.

Besides discussing time limits, the council also passed updated building codes.

Later in the meeting, during the public participation portion, Columbia Street resident Gwendolyn Frances complained that a broken water pipe led to a hike in her sewer bill. In Bogalusa, residents’ sewer bills are tied to water bills, and the more metered water used, the higher the sewer bill. However, Frances pointed out that if a water pipe breaks, that water isn’t being treated by the sewer system so the city should offer a rebate on the sewer bill.

Everyone on the board seemed sympathetic, but city attorney Dale Branch said it’s unlikely the city can legally offer any rebates.

“I certainly agree with you that we should be able to adjust these bills,” Branch said. “I agree with you, but be that as it may, we cannot adjust the bill. We could when we transitioned from the flat rate to the water meter, and we did that. But now that we’re fully integrated into the water meter system, the attorney general has given us an opinion that we cannot adjust the bills because of a leak either on the water or the sewer, because that would be a violation of the constitution of the state of Louisiana.”

Branch explained that the state constitution prohibits a donation of anything to anyone.

“And (the attorney general) considers that a donation,” said Branch, of rebates. However, Branch did say he would research if there is a way to offer rebates that wouldn’t conflict with the attorney general’s opinion.

During the closing comments from the mayor and the council, Mayor Wendy Perrette said work is ongoing at Cassidy Park, but she didn’t give a timetable for completion and she urged anyone who is planning any events for the park to have a backup location in mind.

“Pre-plan for your events and always have a second location,” she said. “It’s always important to have another location.”

She also said 80 yards of dirt was used to fill in a single hole, but it had to be re-packed. She also asked for donations of dirt.

Kates gave an update about a van that displayed a bikini-clad woman on its side as part of an advertisement. At a recent meeting, a local woman had complained that the van’s ad was pornographic. Kates said the van, which she called a “bikini-mobile,” is gone for good.

“(It) was actually sold on the Monday prior to the meeting,” she said.

Kates added that the bikini-mobile had won contests in New Orleans because of its distinctive design. The van is now in Mandeville.

The next city council meeting is Tuesday, June 7, at 5:30 p.m.