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Des Moines caps council speakers at 20, pushing dozens of commenters to future agendas

Des Moines Register logo Des Moines Register 5/11/2021 Shelby Fleig, Des Moines Register
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Forty-six people who were cut off from speaking to the Des Moines City Council on Monday, because of new rules adopted at the start of the meeting, will get their opportunity to do so — sometime in the next seven weeks.

That could be long, frustrating wait for residents who use the city's website to sign up to make a public report a week before each meeting. Before Monday, the public report section was limited to 30 minutes, which were evenly split between whomever signed up. Last month the rule meant about 70 speakers had to speed through 25-second statements

a close up of a sign: A sign outside of Des Moines' city hall notes requirements to wear a mask and practice social distancing on Thursday, July 16, 2020, in Des Moines. © Kelsey Kremer/The Register A sign outside of Des Moines' city hall notes requirements to wear a mask and practice social distancing on Thursday, July 16, 2020, in Des Moines.

On Monday the City Council voted 6-1 to approve the new rules, first announced last Friday, a day after a meeting agenda listed the names of 66 people who wished to speak.

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Under the new rule, only 20 people will be included on each agenda. Each of the chosen few will be given two minutes to address the council for a total of 40 minutes.

More: What can be said in 25 seconds? Not much, Des Moines City Council public commenters learn

Those not among the first 20 people to request speaking time will be pushed back to a future agenda in the order that they signed up. That means the next 2.3 meetings are already booked with this week's would-be speakers. 

With the changes, the public reports section now is the final item on the agenda, a change that Mayor Frank Cownie said would improve the flow of meetings.

Before, commenters were often interrupted by public hearings, which must begin at 5 p.m. This week, without the ability to start and pause public comments, members took a 10-minute recess before public hearings.

More: Des Moines City Council plans to reconsider its policy on public comments at its meetings

Rule took effect immediately


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Ward 3 Council member Josh Mandelbaum was the sole vote against the rule change. He called the change "a step in the right direction," but resisted supporting it because it cut off people who were already added to the agenda.

"I'm concerned about the fact that we've made this change after folks had signed up, so there were (66) people signed up to speak tonight and I'd like to see all of them get to speak tonight," he said.

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He asked his colleagues to grant the first 20 speakers two minutes, then to allow the remaining 46 people to speak for 30 seconds each, as they had expected when they signed up.

At-Large Council member Connie Boesen voted to approve changing to the 20-person limit but, like Mandelbaum, said she would have preferred public reports be lengthened from 40 minutes to a full hour. She proposed holding a number of community meetings where there could be longer open discussions. 

Brad Wiesenmayer is one of the 46 people bumped to a future meeting despite being included on Monday's agenda. Intensifying their inconvenience, they had opted to switch their work shift to attend the meeting. 

Wiesenmayer, an organizer with the Des Moines People's Town Hall, a community group formed last year, said their work schedule at Target usually allows them to attend many council meetings. They said they know others are making even bigger sacrifices to participate.

"I don't know why, but for some reason I still had some kind of shred of faith that they would still honor the 66 people who signed up for this meeting," Wiesenmayer said after the meeting. "I thought, there's no way they don't let us speak at this for this last meeting. But once I realized that was not going to be the case, I was mad. This is just another piece of the puzzle, another example of City Council going out of their way to make these meetings more inaccessible for working people."

More: Des Moines council adopts new conflicts of interest policy after contentious debates

Wiesenmayer said the new rule could result in a backlog that will make it impossible for residents to publicly comment on time-sensitive issues.

"It's effectively disenfranchising people," they said. "If somebody wants to speak on something that's just popping up into the public discourse, or just becoming public information ... by the time you're actually able to speak, that might be passed already.

"That's going to hurt the people who have the most to lose ... but it's going to hurt everybody who wants to speak up on relevant issues in general."

City Council meetings, held virtually for the past 14 months, will return to City Hall starting June 14.

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Shelby Fleig covers Des Moines city government for the Register. Reach her at shelbyfleig@dmreg.com or 515-214-8933.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Des Moines caps council speakers at 20, pushing dozens of commenters to future agendas

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