Omaha City Council

{span}From left, Omaha City Council members Pete Festersen and Ben Gray and Council President Chris Jerram are among those considering updated rules for public comment and public conduct.{/span}

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People who care about how the public gets to testify before the Omaha City Council should plan to show up for the council’s meeting on Tuesday.

The council plans to discuss several changes to its meeting rules, including capping most people at 3 minutes of testimony per topic, requiring them to speak only about the topic at hand and setting standards for public behavior.

Because the council can change its own rules by resolution, not through a city ordinance, the public hearing and vote are both scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Legislative Chambers of the City-County Building at 1819 Farnam St. Ordinances require multiple readings (and weeks) before a vote.

Nebraska’s open meetings law allows public bodies to police public conduct during public meetings, said Jack Gould of Common Cause Nebraska. The Legislature does it, as do many local governments.

But the public is more accepting of such rules when people feel they were part of the process of designing them, good government advocates say.

“Allowing the public to speak is vital,” Gould said. “The more public input they have, the better it’s going to be accepted.”

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Douglas County and Bellevue ran into resistance in recent months while trying to limit the length and range of topics covered during public comment periods. They were trying to eliminate a free-form, open-mic session.

Omaha City Council rules now allow individuals up to 10 minutes to speak on a topic, though as a general practice, the council has limited public testimony to 3 minutes at meetings with a crowd. Recent examples included debates about a new trash contract, the Douglas County juvenile justice center and a proposed plastic bag ban.

Council presidents have also historically tried to keep people who step up to the microphone on the topic at hand. Council presidents for decades have had public spats with local gadflies who speak off-topic at council meetings. Some disputes have led a Douglas County sheriff’s deputy to escort people out who shout, interrupt or speak off-topic during a council meeting.

Most of the proposed rules read like a behavior expectations chart for an elementary school lunchroom. No shoving. No running. No talking out of turn. But the time limit on public testimony could prove controversial.

The new rule allows for 3 minutes, with the discretion to go longer given to the council president, currently Chris Jerram.

Former Council President Ben Gray said the council is not trying to keep the public from speaking or limit speech. The council has been working for two months on rules that better reflect how it does business, he said.

“We’re not making any strong or immediate changes or trying to eliminate certain people from speaking, but to follow the rules,” Gray said.

The aim, he said: to avoid confusion and wasted time and to keep comments civil.

The rules change has to be approved unanimously, so members of the council will have to agree on the length of time the public should be allowed to speak. Some, including Brinker Harding, said they might be inclined to give people more time to talk.

Harding mentioned that some land-use decisions require lengthy explanations of projects to cut down on confusion and questions. But he defended the review of the council’s rules.

“The goal is to make sure that meetings run efficiently and that people are able to express their views and opinions and get responses to questions through the testimony,” he said. “But at the same time it’s also important to have rules that create the environment for that to happen.”