Public comment must now be screened before Oregon council meetings

Kelly J. Kaczala

        Oregon City Council President Tim Zale on Monday said the public can no longer come before council to discuss an issue unless he approves of it before the meeting.
        “From this day forward, if someone wants to speak before council, they will need to get a hold of a council member, or a chairman of a certain committee, then they will contact me to see if what you want to talk about is relevant. If people come to a council meeting other than a public hearing, and don’t want to tell me what they will talk about, that’s not appropriate,” said Zale.
        It will cut down on long discussions that could have been addressed by city officials via emails or phone calls, he said.
        It would also curtail some from using the public comment period to grandstand on an issue that has already been addressed by the city, or as part of a campaign for public office.
        “I would like the general public to understand what council meetings are,” said Zale. “Council meetings are business meetings that the public is allowed to attend. We have always welcomed the public to comment. We do provide numerous ways for the public to contact us regarding important issues to them. One of the most recent complaints is that we really don’t know what’s going on, or we don’t know what’s happening. But providing timely information prevents overreaction and inaccurate assumptions. The city has recently updated its website, which contains a lot of updated information of what is happening in Oregon. This includes emails and phone numbers of all the administration offices and administrators, and all council members. All weekly council minutes and agendas are posted online and easy to find, and all council meetings are broadcast live and archived on the website. “
        The city has also launched a Facebook page where council’s weekly meeting agendas are posted, as well as other information deemed important to the public.
        “I think they are doing a much better job with it,” said Zale. “There is also other useful information regarding police, fire, recreation, the water department, and what have you. If people use these means to share their opinions to get their answers, there’s no reason to make a big show or filibuster at a council meeting. This is not an open mic night. This is a business meeting. We do not want to limit speaking time for our citizens, but there may be a time to consider that in order to conduct an efficient meeting.”
        Beth Ackerman, of Bury Road, was opposed to the new rule, calling it “censorship.”
         “The only problem with trying to censor what the public says at these meetings is that there is no real public forum to address things like intimidation, and conflict of interest,” said Ackerman. “In a perfect world, I could go to a council person and say, `I have an issue. Can you please help me with it? But when it’s your mayor and council president enabling people to come in and bully, threaten citizens who have anything to say, then it becomes a bigger public issue.”
         Ackerman has been at nearly every council meeting since last summer, when she and other property owners were approached by Mayor Mike Seferian to see if they would be interested in selling their land for an electric battery plant in a proposed 400-acre industrial park in East Oregon. Plans for the battery plant fell through because there was not enough available land to buy for the development. Still, Ackerman and some of her neighbors felt the city was not transparent about the proposed industrial park in an environmentally sensitive area that includes old growth forests, wetlands, and eagles’ nests. She has discussed issues during the public comment period that some on council believe have no relevance. Oftentimes, the discussions have turned tense, with Ackerman accusing Seferian and some on council of lying to her.
        Zale said he is not censoring the public by screening questions.
        “We are not censoring anybody,” said Zale. “But some people are not taking any means to answer their questions that can be done without coming here, and using the microphone at a council meeting to maybe run for council or something else. It’s to the point where it has to end. It’s funny, because it’s only one person who does that.
        “I want to know what you want to speak about. I run this meeting,” continued Zale. “I think I have a right to know what it is you want to discuss. I think you need to look at further avenues to get an answer to your question before you come here and try to use this as your pulpit for whatever reason. You can call a city office and get an answer on anything you’ve ever come here for and asked about. If you contact a council member by email, they will contact you. And if you don’t get a response that way, then this is where you should be.”


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