The Paducah City Commission voted Monday to change how public comments are handled at commission meetings, in which topics are limited to what's discussed at that meeting.
By a 4-1 vote, commissioners approved an ordinance amending part of the city's code of ordinances that concerns the process for receiving public comments.
Mayor Brandi Harless and Commissioners Sandra Wilson, Brenda McElroy and Gerald Watkins voted yes. Commissioner Richard Abraham voted no.
The ordinance states city meetings are "intended to facilitate decision making" related to city business and the city wishes to improve efficiency by changing the portion set aside for speakers from the public.
Under the changes, residents can address the city about "any resolutions, items on the consent agenda, or ordinances which were included on the agenda for that meeting and about which the board engaged in a vote or discussion at that meeting." Residents are also given three minutes to speak on any one subject. People who wish to speak about an issue not discussed at a meeting can do so by email, phone, face-to-face meetings or another method, city officials noted.
"By limiting public comments to the agenda items, we are not restricting anyone's first amendment right of free expression," Watkins said. "This is fair, reasonable and the government has a compelling interest in doing so. In conclusion, I do support the public's ability to address the city commission. The comments should be directly related to an item or items on the agenda."
Abraham, the sole "nay" vote, addressed the commission and audience, saying that he's thought about this issue and asked himself, "Why are we changing it?"
"That's the question," he said Monday. "I mean, why are we changing it? And the reason we're changing it is because in the last couple of months folks have been coming to the mic and they've been saying some things that make us uncomfortable."
At the end of the meeting, several Paducah residents addressed the commission and shared disapproval of the public comment changes, including Brad Arterburn.
Arterburn argued the city didn't pass the changes for the reason stated in the ordinance - efficiency. He disagreed that public comments impact efficiency since they're held after city business is over, later saying that suppressing public speech is a "tactic of tyrants."
"Public comments are the last on the agenda," he said. "Commissioners listen and respond voluntarily. Limiting public comments does not improve efficiency. It restricts public comments. Again, I'm addressing the reason that was in the ordinance."
Arterburn told the commission he felt the "real reason" for the change was to silence people who oppose the commission's policies. He added that emails, phone calls and personal meetings aren't the same as the freedom to voice concerns at meetings.
During her remarks, Paducah resident Victoria Terra said she supports the commission's decision and thanked the city for its leadership.
"It's difficult to have everyone have a voice and I think that what you have done is you're forcing us all to become good citizens," Terra said. "If you would, at the end of every meeting, why don't you remind everyone where we can see the agenda, so that we know what's coming up, so that everyone can have a voice and everyone can speak."
In other business, the city introduced an ordinance to set property taxes for fiscal year 2020. It set aside time for a public hearing before the ordinance's introduction, but there was no public comment from residents. The proposed real estate tax levy is 26.7 cents per $100 assessed value, which is 2.3 percent higher than last year.
The final reading for the property tax levy ordinance is scheduled for Sept. 24.