City Council Thursday: Knable seeks the HRC’s reanimation and appoints a heavyweight. Coffey rightly speaks up for public comment placement. But who squelched free speech in the first place?

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Thursday’s city council meeting clocked in at a brisk 32 minutes from gavel to gavel. The only ordinance on the agenda was Haven House homeless shelter funding (3rd and final reading). It was tabled until February owing to administrative something-or-another.

Mike Hall promptly performed 30 seconds of workmanlike stand-up mayoral ventriloquism, and then President Al Knable introduced council member appointments, three of which deserve special note.

Matt Nash (D) joins David Aebersold (R) on the Horseshoe Board.

Knable (R) will serve as one of two council appointments to the ignominiously beached Human Rights Commission (the other council appointment is local realtor Paul Kiger), supplanting Greg Phipps (D), who in 2017 vocally wishy-washed his hands of “his” crowning achievement.

Knable announced his intention to request two remaining mayoral appointments to the HRC (the body itself then chooses a fifth member) and to reanimate it. Jeff Gahan let it die, so this should become interesting very quickly.

Finally, David Barksdale (R) remains posted to the Duggins Turbo Pay Play Station (Redevelopment Commission), but Bob “Human Rubber Stamp” Caesar (D) is removed, to be replaced by an extremely well-qualified citizen, new Albany native Scott Stewart, who recently retired from his position as director of the Port Authority. Previously, Stewart was an executive at Proctor & Gamble, and worked for Governor Mitch Daniels.

Pro tip: time to start attending Redevelopment Commission meetings. 

Now, let’s comment about comments. Last night, something was missing.

Last year, former council president Pat McLaughlin (D) echoed the local Democratic Party’s aversion to dialogue by implementing a requirement to specify one’s subject when speaking.

Knable now has removed it, and this is good. 

Meanwhile, it is perfectly normal (if surreal) for 1st district councilman Dan Coffey (I) to be on his best behavior during the first few meetings each year. He’s studying the terrain for maximum self-aggrandizement, and sniffing the best opportunity to maintain beak-wetting.

Last night, the “good” Coffey ventured a genuinely thoughtful point, sans his customary theatrics: Why not move non-agenda public speaking time back to the beginning of meetings, rather than keeping it at the end?

Wouldn’t this be of benefit to long-suffering members of the public, who simply want to be heard?

Shouldn’t their comments be made first, up front, without restrictions?

Have a seat and a shot, because Coffey’s right. This way members of the public would be spared the inexcusable agony of enduring Coffey’s customary theatrics.

Nash asked Coffey how these public comments came to be pushed to meeting’s end in the first place. Coffey chuckled and replied (paraphrased): let’s just say some council persons weren’t interested in listening.

Who was it?

You’re in luck, because THAT’S WHY WE’RE HERE.

Let’s begin in January of 2010, when at-large councilman John Gonder was elected president. Previously, public comment time was on the agenda at the beginning of meetings. It was not divided into agenda and non-agenda slots. There was a single sign-up sheet, and before the introduction of ordinances and resolutions, those persons listed on it came forth and spoke.

(There are legitimate questions about how long members of the public should be allowed to speak, but these aren’t the point, at least at present.)

Gonder changed the agenda; if memory serves, he lifted the original wording from the city’s enabling ordinance. Throughout 2010 during Gonder’s term, communications still occurred at the beginning of the meeting, in this cadence.

(E) Communications, in the following order:

(1) From city officials
(a) Mayor
(b) Controller)
(c) City Council
(d) City Attorney; and
(e) City Engineer

(2) From official commission:
(a) Board of Public Works;
(b) Plan Commission; and
(c) Park Commission

(3) From members of the public, including petitions and remonstrances

Other council business came after these communications, including committee reports, appointments, and the introduction of ordinances and resolutions.

By the first meeting of February, 2011, the agenda had been streamlined under a new council president.

You might even know him; it was an ambitious veneer peddler by the name of Gahan (D), in what was to be his final year as 6th district councilman prior to enthronement as mayor.

By February 7, 2011 the Great Wall of Comment Segregation had been erected.

From this point forward, members of the public were compelled to restrict their comments to items on the evening’s agenda, or cool their heels — maybe 30 minutes, maybe two hours — to make general observations about the zeitgeist.

In 2017, McLaughlin cynically refined it further; now general comments were to be strictly delineated, too. Mercifully, this petty suppression is gone, and last evening, Knable also seemed amenable to re-ordering public comments according to Coffey’s suggestion. He should. We can’t help it if Coffey’s right every now and then.

In closing, let’s be clear.

If, according to Coffey, some council members back in the day didn’t want to listen, it was Jeff Gahan as council president in 2011 who was most eager to rig the proceedings to result in less communication, as opposed to more of it. 

Because as we know, in 2011 or 2018: THAT’S WHY HE’S HERE.

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