PADUCAH — In two weeks, the Paducah City Commission will hold its first meeting with a new rule that affects you. Monday, the commission voted 4 to 1 to limit public comments during meetings to items on the agenda.
Your city hall is a place where you expect elected leaders to listen to issues that matter to you. Paducah City Commissioner Gerald Watkins said there are limits, and he stands behind his vote in favor of the ordinance.
"When you have just a very few people on the same topic making the same speeches for months that are just attacking another group of people, it's time to address that," Watkins said.
He would not name names, but he did give us an example: A July 23 meeting where tensions were high after rumors that the Western Kentucky Pride Festival could move indoors.
He said some of the comments against the festival went beyond protected speech. "What we are doing is fair," Watkins said. "It's reasonable, and there is a compelling governmental reason to do so."
Watkins said there are three groups of people who continue to go back and forth at meetings. I asked if they included groups who speak often like the local NAACP chapter, members of the LGBTQ community, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
"Well, representatives of those groups speak," Watkins said. "A couple of those groups playing defense. Then you also have some from the Christian community, but they don't represent the christian community."
The Washington, D.C., Freedom Forum Institute's First Amendment Center said the ordinance is vague — maybe even unconstitutional.
"You know, these meetings are not held for the convenience of the people sitting in the room," Freedom Forum Institute COO Gene Policinski said. "They are there for the public to see and hear and participate in public business."
In the past, people could walk up to the podium, press a button and speak to their elected official. It was as simple as filling out a piece of paper. Now, they have to go through the scrutiny of multiple officials.
The commission will decide who makes the cut for the podium, with no public input and no oversight.
"If the public at large, the majority of them, feel like we are not doing our job and not addressing legitimate concerns, then certainly they will replace us," Watkins said.
"The ordinance forgets — the people who sponsored this and voted for it forget who's the boss here. The public is the boss," Policinski said.
Policinski said courts have upheld its reasonable to limit the length of time people can speak, instead of the subject matter.
During Monday's meeting, commissioners said there are other examples of cities that limit the content of public comments.
I asked Watkins to give me an example. He did not. He instead referred me to the Kentucky League of Cities Vice President who Watkins said told him there are "several cities that do not allow any public comment and some require them to be related to something on the agenda."
I also looked into the rules about public comments across west Kentucky. I called 10 local cities. I heard back from eight — all of whom allow unrestricted public comments.
"There are cities across Kentucky that do not allow that," Watkins said. "Maybe not in far West Kentucky, but they don't have the same issues we have here either."
Murray, Kentucky, has a multi-step process for public comments at its city council meetings. It starts with a meeting with the city administrator or mayor to see if the questions or issues can be resolved. Next, if they are not resolved, the mayor can allow the person speak at either a committee meeting or council meeting. Last, the member of the public is placed on the agenda unless it is a public hearing. In a statement, the city said, "Over the past four years since this procedure has been followed, most of the questions and/or issues have been resolved in the first step of the procedure."
In Bardwell, public comments at city commission meetings are not limited to what is on the agenda. Bardwell Mayor Philip King said it's the taxpayers First Amendment right as long as they are orderly and the person is called upon to speak.
"When elected officials deny citizens to speak, the local government system will fail and the citizens will have no respect for whom they have elected, " King said in a statement.
Watkins said the Paducah City Commission does not want to suppress or limit your free speech and is within in its legal rights to implement the ordinance. He encouraged members of the public to call, send letters, emails, texts or social media messages to their elected officials to talk about anything.