If you want your voice heard at a City Council meeting, sign up early and be prepared to shorten your remarks if asked.
Council members voted 9-0 Tuesday to approve several changes to the rules of procedure covering how the public can address them.
Residents will still be allowed to speak for three minutes, which has been the case for decades. Beginning in December, however, residents must be registered to speak by 5 p.m. the day of the meeting. That can be done online, in person or by calling the city secretary’s office.
The previous rule allowed residents to sign up by 6:45 p.m. The council initially considered making the deadline 2 p.m. Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray pushed for the later time, saying it would coincide with the close of business.
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The council began looking at changing the rules in late July after enduring months of personal attacks, screaming, foul language and name-calling directed at city staff and council members.
Outbursts during the meetings were also rising, particularly with some speakers who addressed the council on police-related matters, including the controversial December arrest of Jacqueline Craig, a black woman, by a white police officer.
“This is not about limiting citizen engagement,” Mayor Betsy Price said, but more about bringing more order and decorum to the meetings.
About a dozen residents spoke against making any changes.
To draft the new rules, City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider researched the rules followed by the top 50 most populous U.S. cities and also spoke with each council member about what he or she would like to see done.
“Overall, the city of Fort Worth is generous regarding its rules,” she said. “We are somewhere in the middle of the top cities.”
For example, some cities require speakers to sign up days ahead of time and limit the number of times a month residents can speak on a topic.
Because the changes are significant, the new rules will go into effect Nov. 30 to give the city time to get word out to the public.
In other changes, a person representing a group of 10 or more people will be given six minutes to speak, down from 10 minutes. That will be the case whether it’s an agenda item or citizen presentations at the end of the meeting. Initially the council looked at doing away with the 10-minute rule only for citizen presentations.
If there are a lot of speakers on one issue or if the council has a particularly long agenda, the mayor may reduce the time limit to two minutes. That’s expected to be done rarely, however.
The new rules will also address conduct by members of the public attending the meetings. Among those, attendees shouldn’t get in the way of or intimidate others, or be disruptive. Attendees must not be unreasonably loud or use prolonged yelling or screaming or make other noise to disrupt the meeting.
Speakers will not be allowed to use threatening, hostile, abusive, vulgar or obscene language. Disruptive individuals will be given a warning, but if the bad behavior persists, their speaking privileges can be revoked and the person removed from the meeting and barred from returning that night.
Because council meetings are broadcast, there has been a growing concern among speakers about giving out their home address. They will now only be required to verbally give their name and city of residence. Their address and other information will still be required when signing up to speak.
The council’s rules of procedure were first adopted in 1960 and have been amended several times. In 1960, there were no rules regarding citizen presentations.