By Mark Fischenich
The Free Press
NORTH MANKATO —
First, Kim Spears took the oath of office as North Mankato's newest city councilman and swore, among other things, to protect the Constitution. Second, he offered his first official motion -- to put an end to the three-minute limit the previous council placed on citizens looking to make comments at council meetings.
Spears spent precisely one minute listing why the rule was a bad idea, including that it's intimidating to citizens already anxious about addressing the council, that it suggests that citizen comments have limited value, that it's unnecessary because the mayor can use his gavel to end repetitive and unproductive remarks, and that it can make citizens feel belittled.
But Spears, who spent nearly four years attending council meetings as a citizen before winning a council seat in his second attempt on Nov. 6, had one justification at the top of his list.
"Because it's a prima fascia violation of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution of the United States," he said.
The four returning members of the council -- after 13 minutes of discussion -- ultimately disagreed. The timer, which counts down second by second in large blue numbers on video screens above the podium, was put in place to keep citizens from bringing forth a disorganized, rambling laundry list of issues to the two opportunities each meeting when anyone can talk, they said.
"In only rare occasions have I actually enforced that, because I want to be respectful of the citizens ...," Mayor Mark Dehen said. "But in those instances where we've had people that have taken the bully pulpit and tried to vent their spleen over everything that they feel is an issue for them in the city, it is a useful tool for managing and controlling the meeting."
Council members Bob Freyberg and Diane Norland said it also helps citizens prepare for their presentation, forcing them to be organized and concise.
City Attorney Mike Kennedy noted that North Mankato provides more opportunity than many cities for public comment -- setting aside time for citizens to speak both toward the beginning and the end of each meeting's agenda. But Kennedy also noted that Spears is the only member of the council who has spent much time on the other side of the podium.
"Mr. Spears has a perspective the rest of us don't," he said.
Spears agreed: "It always feels like you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head."
Citizen Barb Church, speaking in the public comment period at the end of the meeting after the council voted 4-1 to keep the limit, spent two minutes and 25 seconds talking about why a three-minute limit is too restrictive. As for the pair of video stop-watches, Church didn't bother with ancient Greek legend to express her opinion, calling them "extremely obnoxious in my world."