The Aurora City Council Monday began examining and discussing some of its meeting rules that can affect councilmembers’ ability to speak during meetings and in how the public can participate remotely.
Mayor Mike Coffman is proposing that the city council repeal a meeting rule named “Call for the question,” which allows council to end debate on an agenda item. A resolution to end the rule was introduced at Monday’s study session and is expected to come up for an official vote Jan. 30.
In recent weeks, progressive minority councilmembers have grown increasingly frustrated with the conservative majority’s use of the council rule, saying it has been abused as a tool to silence dissent and shut down debate.
Coffman previously told The Denver Gazette the final straw for him was during the passage of a tax repeal proposal, in which Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky motioned to end discussion before any councilmembers aside from she and Coffman, the bill’s co-sponsors, could speak. The bill received final approval without any council discussion, and had been the subject of contentious debate at previous meetings.
If a councilmember makes a “call for the question” motion, discussion on the agenda item at hand stops. Council next votes on the “call for the question” motion, and if a majority passes it, no more debate about the agenda item is allowed during the meeting. The council would next proceed to a vote on a resolution or bill, which could entail passing it without discussion.
The rule can be used stop a filibuster or councilmembers from repeating themselves over and over, Coffman said, but he has grown uncomfortable with it being used to hinder councilmembers from having a say during a meeting.
“I’d rather air on the side of giving people the right to speak,” he said on Monday.
A change would mean a change to a common rule of Robert's Rules of Order, which "is America’s foremost guide to parliamentary procedure. It is used by more professional associations, fraternal organizations, and local governments than any other authority," according to its website.
His plan got mixed reviews during council’s study session.
Councilmember Francoise Bergan understood the spirit of Coffman’s proposal, but would not support a full repeal, she said. Mayor Pro Tem Curtis Gardner pointed out that Coffman has used the rule in the past and said he would not support the mayor’s resolution as is.
Councilmember Angela Lawson would be open to an alternative solution suggested by Councilmember Dustin Zvonek, she said, but does not want to entirely repeal the rule because it is useful to stop debates from straying off topic.
Zvonek will likely propose an amendment when the resolution comes up for formal consideration. Rather than a full repeal, Zvonek recommended requiring that motions to end debate require a super majority to pass if the agenda item being discussed is up for its first reading.
“I do agree that we want to have an open and robust conversation around issues, but at the same time I feel that there is a point where (call for the question) becomes appropriate,” he said.
Councilmember Alison Coombs said her only concern with Zvonek’s suggestion was that the final reading of a bill – ordinances or bills are voted on twice at two separate meetings before final passage -- is often the time when community members weigh in. What they have to say on final reading could spark more debate among councilmembers that should not be prevented by a motion to end debate, she said.
Her preference is that council rules require a super majority to pass a “call for the question” motion in any instance.
“Just because we want to make sure that the public’s input is included in the debate that we are having,” she said.
Councilmember Juan Marcano, one of the more vocal critics of council’s use of the motion, supported eliminating the rule. He had considered a similar idea to Zvonek’s, he said, but noted the governing body is not big, and misuse of the rule has not been an issue in the past despite lengthy debate among previous councils.
“It’s sad that we even have to abolish the rule because I do think it would serve a purpose to end a filibuster,” Marcano said.
Councilmember Danielle Jurinsky, who some minority councilmembers have said misuses the motion in particular, would not support Coffman’s resolution unless it includes a provision to prevent what she called “couch heroes.”
Jurinsky criticized “a select few” councilmembers who attend meetings virtually and said they instigate lengthy debates “from the comforts of their couch” while most councilmembers are at council chambers. She urged a requirement that councilmembers attend meetings in-person.
Five of the council’s conservative majority objected to moving the resolution on to council’s regular meeting – one member was absent -- although Coffman said he does plan to bring it forward.
“I can’t wait to ‘call for the question’ on your question, mayor,” Jurinsky said to Coffman as debate wrapped up, to which the mayor told her she was out of order.
Thinking of constituents
Executive Director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Jeff Roberts was not sure how commonly the rule is used among local governments in Colorado.
The key issue in Roberts’ view is the rule’s impact on constituents, and specifically in a scenario where a constituent had wanted to hear the perspective of a councilmember who did not get the chance to speak.
“I think what I would be concerned about is the public in all of this. So, once they do that, (call for the question) are they keeping the public from hearing from their councilmembers,” he said.
Although not an identical issue, Aurora’s debate reminded him to some degree of a dispute that unfolded among Lakewood elected officials in December.
Roberts wrote about the incident for CFOIC, in which three Lakewood city councilmembers raised free-speech concerns after the mayor muted two of their microphones while they spoke during a virtual meeting. The mayor maintained he did not infringe on their freedom of speech.
There might be other solutions for Aurora’s council than a full repeal, and the rule could come in handy if debate among councilmembers is getting out of hand, Roberts said.
“If a discussion is getting off the rails in some way, that people are just talking over each other or somebody is being rude, or they’ve gone on a long time. That’s probably what these rules are designed for,” he said.
Council considered another change to its meeting rules on Monday aimed at expanding public access to council meetings.
Marcano has proposed requiring the city manager to provide a way for the public to make public comment during council meetings remotely, either by videoconference or telephone.
The city council has been operating a call-in line for people to speak during meetings remotely, although a spokesman could not immediately confirm when the call-in service launched.
The cost for providing a call-in line and other technology is already part of the city budget, according to a fiscal note for the proposal. On average, the city clerk’s office pays approximately $2,000 monthly for the call-in service. The city contracts with a third-party company to operate the call-in line.
Between June and November, 81 people used the call-in line and 14 of them requested to speak during meetings, including study sessions, special study session, a town hall and regular council meetings, according to a staff memo. Councilmembers did not object to moving Marcano’s proposal forward.
As for remote participation, Roberts said allowing the public to remotely testify or offer public comment is a good for open government.
“We learned during the pandemic that there are other ways of helping them, giving them the opportunity to participate in their government,” he said.
Open meetings law does not require governments to allow remote participation, and it is up to each board to decide its own rules.
“They just have to treat everybody equally," Roberts said. "Basically, not discriminate based on the content of what some says.”
While some governments livestreamed meetings before COVID-19, it became more commonplace since the pandemic began, he said. He was not sure how many local governments have continued offering remote public comment.
The state legislature is an example of a governing body that has, he said. Before the pandemic, the legislature allowed virtual testimony on certain bills but not all, and required people go to a local community college to speak on camera.
“They’ve now realized that this is much more convenient, that it opens up government to a lot more people,” he said.
Attending a meeting in-person can be difficult for people whose work schedule conflicts with meetings, he said.
“I think it’s about time that everybody does stuff like that. People expect it now and it’s so much more convenient,” Roberts said. “I think in general it just brings people closer to government, because they have more opportunities to participate.”