Three items on the agenda for next week’s Venice City Council meeting are about meetings themselves.
One, raised by Council Member Rich Cautero, is how Council members should respond to comments and inquiries during audience participation.
The other two raise the possibility of speeding up meetings — and of reducing public input somewhat.
First, the Council will consider an ordinance shortening the amount of time allotted to some speakers during audience participation. The matter is entirely within the Council’s control because Florida law doesn’t require that any time be devoted to open public comment.
Several meetings ago, when red tide was especially prevalent, more than 20 people spoke to urge the Council to take more action to combat it. It took well over an hour to get all the comments in, at five minutes per person.
A few Council members sounded off about the barrage of remarks at the following meeting, with Mayor John Holic going so far as to say the meeting had been “hijacked” and Council Member Jeanette Gates saying she had felt “like a hostage.”
A number of the speakers weren’t Venice residents or business owners, Holic said, calling it an “injustice to residents” to give so much time to people who “don’t pay our salaries.”
He proposed a set of rules that would favor Venice residents, property owners and business owners over other people.
The city clerk, he recommended, would sort speaker cards, with city residents, property owners and business owners going first and getting five minutes each, with a maximum of an hour allotted for all speakers.
People without one of those Venice connections would go afterward, time permitting, getting three minutes each.
Gates suggested cutting it to two minutes.
“I think you can say a lot of things in two minutes if you’re prepared,” she said.
A proposed ordinance codifies most of those points and provides, as the current one does, that “time limits for any member of the public may be extended at the discretion of the presiding officer.”
It doesn’t require the clerk to organize speakers by topic or set a maximum amount of time for audience participation.
The other discussion will be on ways to streamline quasi-judicial hearings — proceedings in which the Council sits as judge and jury.
A memo from City Attorney Kelly Fernandez offers seven options, any or all of which the Council could authorize being brought back as a proposed ordinance while still meeting its obligation to provide procedural due process.
1. Eliminate or restrict rebuttal. Fifteen minutes is allotted to an applicant to respond to the other party — and more, if there are multiple opposing parties. It’s not required, Fernandez wrote, but if it’s eliminated, there would need to be a provision for closing argument.
2. Impose time restrictions on cross-examination.
3. Preclude an attorney from testifying as a fact witness unless the attorney indicates at the start of the proceeding that he or she will be a fact witness; is sworn in; and testifies only on direct knowledge.
4. Implement a more formal process for people seeking affected party status on a claim that the action sought will have a more significant impact on them than a member of the public in general.
5. Note objections for the record but make a ruling only when necessary for the integrity of the proceeding.
6. Encourage interested groups that don’t have affected party status to designate a representative who could be granted more time to speak than an individual.
7. Require the parties to provide a list of witnesses and exhibits and a summary of their argument in advance of the hearing.
“While I am not necessarily recommending all of them,” Fernandez wrote, “I thought it would be beneficial for you to see and consider all of the approaches that can be taken.”