By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – City Council members are struggling to find a way to end online meetings earlier while still preserving people’s right to speak up at the end of the meeting.
Since the racial unrest last summer, protestors have queued up at the online council meetings, to speak for their allotted three minutes, with many voicing concerns about what they believe is systemic racism in Dearborn, quoting Police Department arrest statistics by ethnicity to back up their claims. They have shared family stories of injustice or discrimination they said they experienced in Dearborn.
Many of the speaking protestors have returned every two weeks, to speak at the end of the meeting, which has sometimes extended the meetings for more than an hour. The Jan. 26 council meeting ended about 11:20 p.m., after a 7:30 p.m. start time.
At the Feb. 4 Committee of the Whole meeting, Councilman Michael Sareini said his concern is the three minutes allowed per speaker for non-agenda items, when 20 to 30 people are waiting to speak.
“I don’t know why they can’t put it in writing, so we can have it emailed, and all of us can read them,” he said. “Everybody’s input or personal speaking, what they would like to let council know, is very valuable, but I don’t see the necessity of staying to midnight or past with people that just want to say the same things over and over and over again.”
Council President Susan Dabaja agreed that she doesn’t want to have city council meetings lasting until midnight.
“Our colleagues recognize the importance of public comment,” she said. “It’s when it has become such a repetitive nature, the same comment, over and over and over, and it is lasting until 11:30 p.m., 12 a.m. at night, and some of us have to get up really early for obligations, it makes it difficult.”
Sareini suggested that non-agenda comments be put in writing, as rules allow, and submit it to the council.
“We have to run a city, and we have to be able to conduct business in an orderly manner,” he said.
Dabaja said it is important to allow people to come forward to speak at the end of a city council meeting about an issue they are having, which would not be on the agenda.
“I would like the opportunity for them to be heard, and not simply submit it in writing,” she said. “I am trying to find the balance that you can strike where you still allow someone to speak, but not allow this to go on for two hours.”
Sareini said when meetings become in-person again, he doubts as many people will attend in person to speak.
“We’ve got to put a handle on this,” he said. “It’s getting out of hand. I am not staying up until midnight to have people just say the same thing and badger and badger and badger, and use the same ridiculous bloated statistics.”
Sareini suggested that he might just exit the meeting at public comment time.
Councilman David Bazzy said it is a shame that data is being taken out of context and misinterpreted.
“I am not against a single person representing a group, making a statement that they disagree with police policy, and giving their statement why,” he said. “I don’t need to hear 20 people, many of who don’t live in the city, discuss their personal feelings about how they feel in the city, because that is not what the city council is about.
“The city council is about operating budgets and plans, to effectively take care of the 100,000 residents, and the multiple businesses that have invested their money and time, and so we are getting off track because we are allowing the meetings to take a sidebar without really a solution-based effort.”
Bazzy said he is all for having a conversation about trying to do things better, but he feels the opinions expressed to the city council week after week do not contribute to any positive change.
Sareini said that the speakers should not be allowed to poll or ask questions of the city council members.
“I don’t think those questions are worthy of being answered,” he said. “Any questions they have, they can put in writing, and I have no problem giving in answer in writing back to them.”
Dabaja said she planned to discuss the matter with City Attorney Debra Walling.
Councilwoman Erin Byrnes said she had strong feelings on the topic which differed from those which had just been expressed.
“I think having a deeper conversation about this among council, in a meeting that is focused on rules of order, makes sense,” she said. “I don’t think we are going to come to a formal conclusion on this tonight, so I would like to see us get something on the books as soon as we can, to get together and talk through this and figure out what the next steps are.”
Councilwoman Leslie Herrick said any resident who wants to say something in the open, public forum, during the public comment portion of the meeting, shouldn’t be shut down and not given the opportunity.
“It should be done within our rules of order, so I am looking forward to the discussion where we might be able to hone how that section of the meeting is handled,” she said.
Sareini said that many of the people commenting did not live in Dearborn, but that the council cannot require speakers to reveal where they live.
“Many of them, if not all of them, are not residents,” Sareini said. “Our residents, when they come, you know that they are residents, because they have no problem giving their address.”
Dabaja suggested that maybe the public comment period could be given an overall time limit, or minimize the three minutes to something less. She asked Walling to provide the council with all its options so they can ensure that they are in compliance with the Open Meetings Act.
“I do feel a sense from the council in an interest in allowing people to speak, it is just about the repetitiveness that has bogged down the meetings and really extended them into the late hours of the night,” Dabaja said. “It’s gone too long.”
Resident Jonathan Kade, who was watching the Zoom meeting, said, as a Dearborn taxpayer, it matters to him a great deal how the city treats people who live in the city and pass through the city.
“It does bother me a lot that people face violence from officers of our city, and so, I think to say that it is OK for residents to come to the city council and talk about how their fence ordinance should work, but not OK for residents and people who work in the city to come to the council and talk about the violence against people passing through our city and threats of violence against people passing through the city, it seems rather grotesque.
“I just don’t understand how that would make sense, that it is OK to talk about a fence, but it is not OK to talk about life and death concerns.”
Dabaja said it is the repetition to which she is opposed.
“We should still allow for public comment, and the opportunity to speak directly to a council member should exist,” she said. “The concern that is being brought up is the repetition of multiple members of the public saying the same thing, and having said it for the last 20 meetings or so. Whether it is a fence permit or violence that exists within our city, there is no reason we should be differentiating who can speak in that regard. It was not about the content. It was about the repetitiveness and making best use of city time.”