PADUCAH — Paducah leaders approved an ordinance Monday that limits public comment during city commission meetings to what's on the agenda.
The Paducah Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 Monday evening in favor of the ordinance, which amends Section 2-145 of the Paducah Code of Ordinances. The change means from now on, anyone who speaks during the public comment portion of a city commission meeting must only talk about topics that are related to business items on the meeting's agenda — including resolutions, consent agenda items, and ordinances.
Mayor Brandi Harless and Commissioners Gerald Watkins, Sandra Wilson and Brenda McElroy voted in favor of the change. Commissioner Richard Abraham voted against it.
During Monday's meeting, Watkins explained his position.
"At no other level of our government are citizens allowed to directly address lawmakers in their chambers. Not at the federal level nor at the state level. The public communicates in private meetings, emails, phone calls, things of that nature," said Watkins. "We, Paducah City Commission, allow the public to directly address us at city commission meetings, even though J.D. Chaney at the Kentucky League of Cities has said it is not required, and some cities do not allow it. I support the ability of the public to address us directly, but I think the comments should be directly related to an agenda item or items."
Watkins also said the rule change can have an economic impact.
"We're spending a lot of money to try to bring in new jobs for our citizens. If when one Googles Paducah, Kentucky, and what they see is a lot of conflict and a lot of strife, potential employers will be hesitant to want to locate in Paducah. And we need jobs desperately bad in our community, and that's something that we need to think about," said Watkins.
Abraham said although the idea of limiting comments to what's on the agenda is reasonable, he takes issue with why city leaders want the change.
"Why are we changing it? And the reason we're changing it is because in the last couple of months, folks have been coming to the mic, and they've been saying some things that make us uncomfortable," said Abraham. "If we're going to change it, sure it's got to be a better reason than just because we're uncomfortable with what folks are saying."
The city says in the ordinance document that the change is "an effort to improve efficiency of the commission meetings...to streamline the portion of the meetings set aside for speakers from the general public."
But several members of the public spoke out against the ordinance during Monday's meeting.
"Limiting public comment does not improve efficiency," Brad Arterburn said. "The real reason for this proposed amendment is to silence those who oppose the commission's policies. If public comments consistently agreed with the commission's policies, this ordinance would've never been brought forward. Comments in agreement with you would not have been considered inefficient."
"I really think it's something against First Amendment," said John Suttles. "And what they are, they're skirting the issues and stuff and anything that they don't feel comfortable with."
McElroy told Local 6 why she voted for the change.
"Things have gotten a little out of hand in terms of respecting and showing kindness to one another in some of the comments that have been made," McElroy said. "I think this world kind of has been operating on the principal that if I disagree with you, I do not like you. And that's a really bad place for us to be."
The city says people who want to talk about topics that are not on a meeting agenda can discuss with the Board of Commissioners via email, phone, or a meeting.
"I try really hard to respond immediately," said McElroy. "I had somebody on Facebook go and say I didn't respond, and then she realized it was in her junk file. So that can happen. But we try very hard to return phone calls, return emails, be available for meetings."
To reach all the commissioners at once, the city says you can email Commissioners@PaducahKY.gov. You can also email them individually. Their contact information is listed at this page.
To reach both the city manager and assistant city manager at the same time, you can email CMO@PaducahKY.gov.
McElroy said members of the public can also work with city commissioners to get a topic on a meeting agenda.