CASPER, Wyo. — The Casper City Council will look at how they accept public comment during regular council meetings.
Since moving to an online meeting format due to COVID-19, the council’s regular meetings have sometimes stretched to 10 or 11 pm. Coordinating public comment via phone calls has led to the meetings generally lasting longer than when the meetings are held in person.
Mayor Steve Freel suggested the council consider accepting live public comment only during the second reading of proposed ordinances rather than on all three readings. He noted that the council tend to hear from the same people expressing the same views multiple times, leading to the long meeting times.
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Freel stressed that the public would still be able to call and email council members and city staff with their concerns.
Councilman Ray Pacheco noted that the council hasn’t always accepted public comment during all three readings of an ordinance.
“One public [comment period for ordinances] I think is doable,” he said.
Councilman Steve Cathey said that he thought it might make more sense to allow public comment ahead of the first reading of an ordinance rather than accepting public comment ahead of the second reading.
He said that might be important if amendments need to be made based on comments received from the public. Since the city publishes notice of meeting agendas ahead of time, members of the public wishing to speak have the means to plan to offer their comment on first reading.
Vice Mayor Khrystyn Lutz asked City Attorney John Henley if he had any concern that directing people to provide additional comments beyond what they could say during the proposed one public comment period would be problematic if people complain they don’t have access to phone or email.
Henley said he thinks “the city has been pretty accommodating” facilitating conversations with the public.
“I don’t think there is a legal problem with it,” he said.
Councilman Charlie Powell said that he thought the idea was interesting and worth considering. However, he said that public comment has been “helpful to craft some changes.” He said that if the council were to cut back on the number of readings at which the public could comment, it might be better to do that during second reading.
Powell noted that the topic tends to become a larger part of the public conversation after the first reading has been completed.
“I think it might be worth trying,” he said.
Councilman Mike Huber said he thought the topic needed more of the council’s attention at a future work session.
“I really liked the idea of having public comments at each public reading,” he said, though he acknowledged that it has led to some repetitiveness.
While members of the public may call in and say about the same thing on all three readings, Huber said he thinks sometimes there is a “kernel of value in the third or fourth time someone says something.”
Huber said the council needed to think about whether they want a “system that is truly encouraging people to come in and express their opinions or do we want to discourage that?”
He added that another option would be to consider giving the mayor the authority to cut someone off if their input was too repetitive, similar to the “asked and answered” objection in a courtroom. Huber said the mayor could point out to the person that the council has already heard the point they are making and ask if they have anything new to offer.
“I do think that it is really important that we try to encourage citizen input,” Huber added. He said that he had some doubts about relying too much on public input via surveys or emails.
“That’s not really the way that representative democracy in the United States works,” he said, saying he didn’t think the council should “blindly” rely on surveys. “We are a republic, not a pure democracy.”
The council decided to add the topic to a future work session for further discussion. Freel added that he’d like the council to also revisit the code of ethics.
He said that time should be devoted during a work session to look at revising the code of ethics to clarify how long someone should wait after serving on the council and voting on an item before they can turn around and take action related to that item such as purchasing property.