Government & Politics

OP may allow more public comment at meetings. But it won’t decide till after election

Overland Park ranked as best place to raise a family in 2019

WalletHub released its "2019's Best & Worst Places to Raise a Family." It compared more than 180 cities across 47 key metrics. Overland Park, Kansas, had the lowest share of families receiving food stamps.
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WalletHub released its "2019's Best & Worst Places to Raise a Family." It compared more than 180 cities across 47 key metrics. Overland Park, Kansas, had the lowest share of families receiving food stamps.

Overland Park officials have agreed to study whether to let the public speak at meetings about issues not on the agenda — something almost every other municipality in the area allows. But some City Council candidates worry that Johnson County’s largest city won’t decide on the matter until after the November election.

“It does not need to continue for two or more months,” said 5th Ward Councilman Faris Farassati, who is running for reelection and has spearheaded the push for an open public comment period. “Voters in November need this piece of information. They need to know how (council members) are going to vote about their First Amendment rights. I think it needs to be quite clear that voters have the right to know their reasoning.”

At Wednesday’s Finance, Administration and Economic Development Committee meeting, around a dozen residents pushed for “open microphone” time at city meetings. Committee members directed staff to study other municipalities’ policies — a process city leaders said could take until the committee’s meeting in late November.

Councilman Dave White, chair of the committee, said an amendment adding public commenting could be included in a review of the council and committee procedures, which outline meeting protocol. Other issues being reviewed include enhancements to the livestreaming of meetings and guidelines for volunteer citizen committees.

White said he thinks adding public commenting is a “great idea,” but said several questions are still unanswered. He assured the audience the city would study the issue, but advised the process would take time.

“It took three or four months for us to do the analysis for livestreaming. We’re not dragging our feet here,” he said. “Overland Park is known for doing things right.”

Other council candidates have voiced concerns about the process taking too long.

“Every meeting that goes by without it being implemented means that many more people of Overland Park whose voices are effectively silenced and thus shut out of the process,” said Dan Osman, who is running for a 4th Ward seat. “I’m hopeful that it comes to a vote before the full council soon. If it doesn’t, you can be assured it will have my full support if I’m elected in November.”

Candidate Roger Tarbutton, who is challenging 2nd Ward Councilman Paul Lyons, said because “governing bodies in the area currently allow public commenting and have done so for many years, I do not think months of study should be required to get a new policy in place.”

Lyons has said he would consider designating an open microphone time at meetings, but said he first would like to review how other municipalities have implemented it.

Several residents Wednesday night encouraged the city to give them a public platform to voice their concerns.

“This is the most important idea coming forward to Overland Park at this moment — because of human connection,” said resident Sheila Albers. “There are 12 of you serving a huge community and you’re making big decisions that impact our day-to-day lives. You can’t make human connection through emails and letters. You do that face to face.”

Albers was one of a handful of residents who attempted to voice new ideas during a public hearing about the city budget at a recent council meeting.

She tried to use the time to discuss the need for more mental health services — an issue she has been advocating since Overland Park police shot and killed her teenage son last year while responding to reports that he threatened suicide. The mayor cut her comments off, directing everyone to focus on the topic at hand.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.