Galesville council opts against adding public comment section to meetings

For the second time in the last three years, a Galesville city council member’s proposal to up the designated time for public comments at city meetings failed last Thursday.

The same meeting also saw another proposal fail, one that would have added a public complaint form regarding ordinances not being followed.

Council member Tory-Kale Schulz proposed an entirely new ordinance regarding public comment, one he crafted with the help of similar ordinances in other Wisconsin municipalities. His motion to accept the new ordinance was denied for lack of a second.

“This is an existing ordinance of communities that allow the bedrock of communities to stand before the committee knowing that they’re not going to get any action taken against what they’re saying,” Schulz said of his proposal. “It’s just a time for us to listen. It’s a beautiful thing.”

Despite Schulz’s failed motion, the council could see public comment back on the agenda in June to discuss the city’s current policy.

The history of public comment in Galesville

Some council members were surprised to hear last week that Galesville already has an ordinance regarding a public comment portion of public meetings.

The ordinance currently says the time given to a resident for public comment can be restricted to a limited time set by the mayor or presiding officer. Former mayor John Graf changed that time to zero, and Howe kept that policy when he took over as mayor in 2018. 

The allotted time used to be five minutes around 10 years ago, and Howe acknowledged last week that the council reduced that number to three minutes before it was cut to zero.

It is unclear when the council last had a designated public comment portion to meetings. Howe and the council still permit residents to speak on city issues so long as they are acknowledged and permitted to do so by Howe during meetings and are not disruptive.

Changing the current ordinance to reinstate a designated public comment portion to meetings could be back in front of the board in June, but Howe said the reduction years ago was necessary.

“To do a new ordinance is very costly to the city,” Howe told Schulz of his proposed new ordinance. “The only thing you don’t like is the fact that there’s zero minutes.”

“There’s a reason for it,” Howe continued. “People would come here and they would talk about it, and the council sits there and can’t say a word about it, answer back to them or anything like that. With all the drama that’s been going on here in the city, I’m going to recommend to change nothing on this ordinance.” 

Current council member Tom Thatcher suggested raising the time given for public comment back in 2020 after hearing from several citizens about the issue.

“If someone brings something that the mayor or a council member doesn’t agree with, the mayor won’t put it on the agenda,” Thatcher said in 2020.

Schulz asked Thatcher if he was going to second his motion on the new ordinance last Thursday, to which Thatcher responded, “I changed my mind.”

Public comment likely to be back in front of council

Council members were divided on the topic, with some agreeing with Howe that the cost of re-writing or creating a new ordinance could be too hefty for the city.

Councilor Dave Carlson asked that the issue come back to the board in June to discuss the reinstatement of a public comment time further.

Carlson said the council needs to consider spending money on updating ordinances eventually, pointing to the fact that ordinances list the Galesville Republican as its official paper despite it actually being the Trempealeau County Times. The Galesville Republican last printed in 2010. 

“There’s probably a time coming in the not-too-distant future that we need to spend some money just to tidy up a bunch of stuff,” Carlson said.

He asked that the council consider changing its current rule from zero to three minutes for a month or two and seeing how it goes.

“This seems somewhat attractive to me to limit it and put it at the beginning of the meeting and have people be able to come in and talk,” Carlson said, “and then when we get into discussion of agenda items. … that time be reserved for us to have discussion.”

Former council member Dick Sacia also told the council that comments should be welcomed.

“If I pay $5,000 a year (in) taxes I think I ought to be entitled to three minutes to address my city council and my two alderpersons. And I don’t know why on earth it’s limited to zero,” Sacia said Thursday.

Howe acknowledged the cut to comment time, saying, “at the time the police department was getting beat up pretty bad and occasionally a council member or the mayor. And I’m not going to stand for that anymore,” Howe said.

But Sacia argued that such criticism and freedom of speech is part of being a public official and representing others.

“If we can’t give a person three minutes out of your precious time, then something is radically wrong,” Sacia said.

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