A do-over for public hearings? 

COLUMBIA, Mo  2/21/17 (Beat Byte) --  Last night's Columbia City Council public hearing about the so-called "Unified Development Code" (UDC) was a real head scratcher. 

AKA the "Zoning Code", it's a big deal:  400 pages of arcane new rules, procedures, and city powers that promise to overturn decades of law and tradition.      

City Hall hosted a standing room only crowd, of property owners, Realtors, residents, young folks, old folks, activists and advocates.  Pens poised, the press was ready to go, too.  Missourian columnist George Kennedy sat right up front.     

Mayor Brian Treece organized a speaker sign-in procedure, allowing six full minutes for anyone who wanted to speak -- twice as long as the usual three minutes.    

But only 2 people commented.    TWO! 


Columbia Board of Realtors president James Meyer offers a few answers in a letter to the City Council

"As stakeholders who will be affected by the new code, and as champions for the property rights of all property owners, we feel the Council should reconsider the schedule and rules for addressing the Council in regard to the UDC," he wrote.  

TWO drafts of the new code are floating around:  one for the City Council and one for the Planning and Zoning Commission.     City manager Mike Matthes dropped the Council draft on the public only 3 days before last night's meeting.    His chief lawyer, Nancy Thompson, even snuck in a few critical changes without notification, as one of the two public commenters sternly noted. 

"Only allowing three and half days for the public to review and understand this new draft seems to be bad public policy," Meyer wrote.    "This seems especially true given that the City’s legal department has required changes unknown to the public.

Mayor Treece's new sign-up procedure may also unwittingly discourage commentary.   

It eliminates "spontaneous commenting" -- when a person in the audience suddenly decides to get up and speak after hearing other speakers.   Plus, everyone kept making a big deal about "only two people signing up", which may have made other folks think "only two?   It might look weird if I go up."  

"Citizens should not be required to sign up to speak in order to make public comments," Meyer wrote.  "They should be able to follow the normal practice," which is you go to the podium, give your name and address, and speak while the Mayor keeps time.   It's very informal. 

Finally, under the Mayor's new rules, you can only speak once.   With four meetings planned over this mega-law, people may want to comment more than once.  

You know what they say about hindsight.  

Plus, Council members love to introduce changes called "amendments" which people may want also want to address.             

"We take issue with the policy guaranteeing an individual only a single, six‐minute comment period throughout the contemplated four meeting series," Meyer told the Council.   "Citizens should be granted an additional opportunity to speak after the Council has introduced all amendments and the public has had a chance to digest and understand those amendments." 

While he understands the "need to put limits on meetings and comment periods," Meyer and his Board believe "the limits established by the Council seem inadequate, especially for an ordinance with so much at stake."  
The City Council will host three more hearings:  9 a.m. Saturday in the Council chambers;  March 6 and March 20 during its normal 7 pm regular meetings.   The public is invited to attend and SPEAK!