Council chops public comments to 3 minutes

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Erskine Oglesby proposes to chop public comment time from five minutes to three. (Photo David Tulis)

Chattanooga city council is taking a schoolmarm role in slashing by 40 percent the number of seconds citizens are allotted to air grievances and petitions to their public representatives..

By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio

It’s not that city council is a lavish waster of time. Its main Tuesday evening meetings often are gaveled to a close in 30 minutes, and issue the dry musty smell of routine administration with little or passion over ideas, the rights of people, police abuse or prosperity.

Up until now citizens have been allowed five minutes in which to speak. The council — led by member Erskine Oglesby — is knocking that back to three minutes in an effort to teach the people to be quick on their feet, precise in their reflections and to the point in utterances intended for the city as awhole.

Asked why restriction, Mr. Oglesby pulls away and says, “Thank you, David.”

Carol Berz supports the move. “The council felt we could really get the gist of what people were wanting to say in three minutes instead of five minutes. *** We’re not trying to keep meetings short,” Dr. Berz says. “If there is a particular issue, we’d love to hear a number of people talk about an issue at three minutes each, so we’d like to hear from even more people.”

With less time, will people do more editing and redacting and hone points down to the essentials? A reporter asks. “That is exactly right. And, hopefully, they’ll bring others with them, who’ll use their three minutes as well.”  

With five minutes the limit today — three people speak, including activist Marie Mott and litigious homeless journalist Monty Bell — a buzzer rings with time is up. Occasionally, the council grants leeway. Avery Gray, whose daughter was dragged from a car by a city cop, was given a rapt 20 minutes. Notables such as Franklin McCallie have taken 15 minutes or more of respectful attention.

The motion for three minutes was prompted by Mr. Oglesby. People often use three minutes but then speak repetitively in the last two, Chip Henderson says. The official limit is being reduced, he says, but the council will always show lenity to someone in the middle of a case that can’t fit into three minutes.

“They have to ask, or the council person representing them can ask for more time, as well,” Mr. Henderson says.

Council members talked about the time snip this afternoon, Anthony Byrd says, and also two months ago. The five minute rule began when member Jerry Mitchell was chairman.

Mr. Byrd says five minutes is too much for some people, who come to the microphone and feel they have to take the full time allotted. Mr. Byrd says he had proposed council scrap its twice-a-month limit on speakers. It is “trying to find that balance,” he says.

Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod refuses to give even a lick of speech about the parsimony of the clock, and points to Mr. Oglesby as a better person answer. Russell Gilbert refuses to comment. Darren Ledford also dodges into an elocution about procedure, saying that it’s not proper to ask about current legislation. The three-minute rule takes effect next week, so there’s not much apparent room for discussion left.

Council chairman Ken Smith, a man of principle in declining to speak with this broadcast journalist who offended him in an interview six years ago, refuses comment.

The David Tulis show is 1 p.m. weekdays, live and lococentric.


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