NORTH MANKATO — The North Mankato City Council approved tweaks to its public comment policies during a meeting Monday night, despite the protests of several speakers and more than 20 people who showed up to oppose the council's decision.
Under the new rules, the council will eliminate one of its two public comment periods, prohibit speakers from repeatedly addressing an issue and require speakers who wish to discuss items not on the council's agenda to submit their topic to city officials prior to a meeting, among other things.
The new rules are largely in response to frequent speakers Tom Hagen and Barb Church, who regularly attend council meetings and at times debate policy with council members when they speak during the public comment period.
City officials have defended the rules tweak as a way to encourage more people to speak out and ensure no one has a monopoly on the council's time. Yet Hagen and others say the city could use the new rules to stifle its critics.
"We're asking for six minutes in a month, and these people don't have time to listen to the public?" Hagen said before the public meeting.
Several speakers publicly opposed the new rules, saying the council looked as though it were suppressing public comment by adding extra hoops to jump through rather than encourage more speakers as city officials have said in the past.
"I guess I don't see how the public benefits from this," former Council candidate Matthias Leyrer told the council.
Leyrer said the council's actions make it look thin-skinned and only legitimizes its critics.
Only Council member Billy Steiner opposed the new rules. Steiner tried to remove the proposal from the council's consent agenda to give it more discussion, after he said he wasn't satisfied with how the new rules turned out.
"I'm not proud of the way things have gone here," he said toward the end of the council's meeting Monday. "I think we're suppressing public opinion, and I'd just like to say I just don't like it."
North Mankato Mayor Mark Dehen said the new rules will also allow the council to take action on items as soon as they are presented, which differs from the council's previous practice of listening to speakers and addressing their concerns at a subsequent meeting.
"We haven't been able to do that in the past," he said.
He said the city hopes to encourage more people to respond with concerns or issues without having to debate policy over numerous council meetings.
City Administrator John Harrenstein pointed out a recent National Citizens Survey showed 85 percent of about 500 respondents were pleased with North Mankato's city government. Harrenstein said the city is "very interested" in getting residents to speak with the council.
"Citizens should be assured that we won't be acting in ways that they aren't able to at least address us before we act," he said.
Harrenstein dismissed dismay from several speakers who had previously criticized the city, which included former Taylor Library Director Lucy Lowry.
"You can beat a dead horse but you can't get it to run," he said.
Lowry attempted to speak to the council about a potential hostile work environment among city employees. She was asked to sit down by several council members who said the issue was out of bounds, however.
Lowry suddenly retired in January after a series of disagreements with Harrenstein; her sudden departure from the city raised concern among library board members over Harrenstein's professional demeanor but the council unanimously supported Harrenstein after a review and his annual evaluation.
Dehen told Lowry the council had already addressed her concerns, while Council member Diane Norland said Lowry's attempted comments could violate Harrenstein's privacy and were "probably illegal."
Dehen told the audience the council will keep the proposal in place for at least the next three months. After that, the council will review and decide whether to keep the new rules in place.
"For now, this is what we're going with," Dehen said.