The Journal Gazette
Thursday, June 10, 2021 1:00 am

Council to eye changes for speakers


City Council might change the way it handles public comments after issues arose during this week's chaotic meeting.

Fourteen people showed up to the Fort Wayne City Council meeting Tuesday to share public comments about a resolution that would show the council's opposition to COVID-19 vaccination passports. Each of those people was required to call in advance to sign up since the spots are limited to 24 each regular meeting. Each public speaker had to give their names and addresses and each was told they would need to share their address at the meeting, said City Council President Paul Ensley, R-1st.

Eight of those people gave addresses they do not live at, whether the addresses were fake or random business addresses. One person gave an address for J.C. Penney at Glenbrook Square, while another gave the address for Kroger on Dupont Road.

One of the speakers was nearly turned away because she refused to give her address beyond her ZIP code. She cited fears of someone targeting her home due to her comments but eventually stated an address – a location with no building in a ZIP code different from the one she initially gave – for the record after Ensley banged a gavel.

The meetings are broadcast on City TV and streamed live on Facebook.

City Clerk Lana Keesling said her office does not check the addresses people use to sign up or the ones they verbally give at the meeting. The addresses are used to tell City Council members if the speaker is a city resident and in which district they live, Keesling said, adding that nonresidents are still allowed to speak at meetings.

Public comment sections are not required at council meetings, but Fort Wayne City Council has given local residents the opportunity for years. The policy has always been that speakers give their addresses publicly, as is the case for speakers at Allen County commissioners meetings.

Ensley said he understands why people might be hesitant to give their home addresses publicly, and he thinks City Council can look at other alternatives for public speakers. One alternative he has looked at is the process the Allen County Plan Commission uses, which would involve speakers giving a ZIP code during the meeting but then signing the record after with their full addresses.

Another issue that came up was the group of public commenters talking during the meeting. They were seated in an adjoining council room, and they could be heard yelling in the room where the meeting was happening when Sharon Tucker, D-6th, addressed comments made during her closing comments. “Many of them showed a high level of disrespect for the council members,” Ensley said.

But that could be due to the unusual circumstances of the meeting. Before the pandemic, public speakers watched the meeting in person, and that can give people an example of how decorum in local government meetings works, Ensley said.

It's the first meeting this year that has had more than one public speaker. Speakers were seated in the adjoining room as a group to watch the live broadcast of the meeting. Ensley said that likely allowed people to get more fired up.

The meetings are expected to go back to pre-pandemic protocol in July, Ensley said. Any changes to public comments will be announced at a future meeting. The public speaker list for the next City Council meeting will open at 8 a.m. Wednesday for the June 22 meeting, and people can sign up by calling Keesling's office at 260-427-1221.

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