Several times Overland Park resident Mary Coffman wanted to bring up an issue at a City Council meeting. But she wasn’t allowed to.
Residents can comment only on topics listed on the agenda or during public hearings. But many of Coffman’s concerns, she said, such as traffic congestion or a lack of affordable housing, have gone unheard.
Overland Park is the only city in Johnson County — and one of only a handful in the Kansas City region — that does not designate a time at meetings for residents to talk about whatever is on their mind. Now some residents and council members want that to change.
“The Overland Park City Council has a responsibility to provide a forum for citizens to speak their opinions on issues impacting their community,” Coffman said. “It is democracy in action for our elected leaders to listen and address issues that citizens bring before them. How else are they to really know what’s happening in our community?”
Fifth Ward Councilman Faris Farassati is spearheading the effort to implement what he calls an “open microphone” period at City Council and committee meetings. He said the issue will be discussed on Aug. 21 at the Finance, Administration and Economic Development Committee meeting.
Residents have other options for getting their voices heard by the city. They can speak at committee and council meetings about specific proposals moving through City Hall. And they can directly contact their elected officials. But some say that isn’t enough.
“I can call a City Council member or send them an email but it is not officially recorded,” resident Janet Milkovich said. “(It’s about) letting other citizens know that I have the same concerns they do. When the council hears the voices of multiple citizens on the same issue, it has the potential to influence the council to take action.”
Neighboring municipalities as well as the Johnson County Commission designate a time at meetings for the public to speak, according to city ordinances and agenda schedules. Many limit public comments, such as Lenexa, which allows each resident five minutes to speak. Others, such as Mission Hills, have more casual policies.
BEHIND OUR REPORTING
How did The Star find out about the public meeting issue?
Overland Park resident Mary Coffman contacted reporter Sarah Ritter to explain her concerns about the lack of a public comment period at city meetings. Ritter then saw a Facebook post from Councilman Faris Farassati saying that he is formally requesting the implementation of a public comment period and that the topic will be up for discussion on Aug. 21. For more, click on the arrow at top right.
How did The Star learn that Overland Park is the only Johnson County city without such a comment period?
Ritter read city ordinances related to public meetings, checked recent council agendas and contacted city clerks to verify meeting procedures in every Johnson County municipality as well as a sampling of cities on the Missouri side.
Earlier this summer, Olathe announced plans to limit its public discussion period to 30 minutes. The idea was met with opposition, including from LGBTQ advocates pushing for a non-discrimination ordinance to be approved — an issue that had not been on the council agenda.
Across the state line, several Missouri cities, including Lee’s Summit and Independence, offer public discussion at meetings. Kansas City is one of the few that do not allow public comments at full council meetings.
In his two years on the Overland Park City Council, Farassati said he’s frequently watched as people “didn’t have enough time or the opportunity to express their opinions.”
“We are a relatively big city, and no government can claim it is aware of the opinions and requests of all of its constituents,” said Farassati, who is running for reelection. “The open microphone would provide a constant way of dynamically and frequently communicating with people to help plan for the future. That is why other jurisdictions have it.”
More than a gesture?
The public comment issue played out at Overland Park’s most recent City Council meeting.
Last week, Mayor Carl Gerlach opened a public hearing, giving residents a chance to speak about the proposed city budget. A half-dozen residents got up to talk — but not about the budget.
Residents urged the city to adopt an ordinance to end discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. One resident started talking about mental health responders. And another said she’d like the city to consider better practices for the environment.
The mayor cut most of the comments short, directing everyone to focus on the issue at hand. Gerlach told the crowd they should have suggested new budget items during the previous public hearings.
A non-discrimination ordinance and green construction code were not on that night’s agenda, but residents tried their best to have their concerns heard anyway.
“Our current structure only allows public hearings in certain instances. And it’s very restrictive,” Farassati said. “When the lobbyists for certain projects or developers come to council, they have almost an unlimited time to speak. We never cut them off or restrict them in that way. And then they can have a rebuttal and answer questions. The public cannot answer back. My constituents say that is not fair.”
First Ward Councilman Logan Heley said residents have been bringing up the issue of public comments since he took office two years ago.
“One of the reasons I ran for office was to increase engagement with the community and our local elected officials,” Heley said. “Since I took office, we looked at the issue of livestreaming meetings. We got that done. I’ve also been holding monthly ward meetings. So I think open public comment would be another way that folks could engage with elected officials.”
Councilman Dave White, chair of the Finance, Administration and Economic Development Committee, said every couple of years, the city reviews the council and committee procedures, which outline meeting protocol. He said there are several procedures council members, residents and staff want to reconsider, including public commenting.
Rather than waiting for the next review, done every other year, White said the committee plans to reexamine the procedures, starting at the Aug. 21 meeting. Other topics of interest include improvements to the livestreaming of meetings and guidelines for volunteer citizen committees.
“I want everyone to understand this won’t be a knee-jerk thing,” said White, who represents the 3rd Ward. “We’re going to study it, and it’s going to be part of a greater whole.”
White said he wants to ensure the process will be more than a “welcoming gesture.”
“I want it to be substantive,” he said. “I don’t want an open mic where someone can just get up and gripe about anything. What we need is, if a citizen has a concern, to address it in a proper manner so we’re not wasting time.”
He said it might be most productive to only offer open public commenting at committee meetings, where residents could voice opinions during early planning stages before issues go to a council vote.
Other City Council members either declined to comment or did not respond to messages from The Star.
Overland Park couple Jeff and Kathy Johnson said they would like to see the council designate a time at meetings for open public discussion. But they’re skeptical comments will be taken seriously or encourage elected officials to take action.
Farassati said regularly receiving citizen input would help the council make better decisions. He also emphasized the importance of residents feeling heard.
“People may forget the results of the decision, but they never forget how you treated them during the procedure,” he said.