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Normal seeks AG's opinion on public comment policy
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Normal seeks AG's opinion on public comment policy

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NORMAL — Speakers could soon appear before Normal City Council more often.

The town is seeking guidance from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan's office on a rule limiting speakers to one appearance every 45 days, said City Manager Mark Peterson.

"(We are) asking for an advisory opinion as to whether or not this rule is compliant with the Illinois Open Meetings Act," he said. "We have not yet received a reply from the AG’s office, and I cannot predict when we will receive a response. However, I think it is likely that the council will comport with the opinion of the (office)."

Marc Tiritilli, who is opposing incumbent Mayor Chris Koos in the April 4 election, has promised to change the rule if elected. The council also has heard opposition to the practice during recent public comments.

Neither Bloomington City Council nor McLean County Board has a similar policy. Bloomington's meetings generally have more public comments than Normal's or the county's.

“Our friends in Bloomington have a less restrictive policy, and I’ve observed it is sometimes cumbersome for them to get on to the details of the agenda. … I get the sense it’s a lot of the same (commenters repeatedly),” said Normal City Council member Kathleen Lorenz. “How far down this slope do you go before it affects your ability to conduct business?”

Koos, who was mayor when the rule was implemented, said officials "didn’t foresee that people would have something to say every meeting" and "thought that was a prudent rule.”

Council members who spoke to The Pantagraph about the policy were split on whether to keep it, but agreed residents should be aware there are many ways to contact their elected officials aside from public comments. Those include by phone, email, social media and in-person meetings.

“Making public comment, if the goal of that is to make your voice heard to the mayor and council, is likely one of the more inefficient ways to do so,” said council member Scott Preston. “From the town of Normal website, with one click, you can email the mayor and council all at once.”

Preston added, however, he doesn't "necessarily see a need for a wait time in between comments from the same individual."

"I think there are other ways we could continue to approach our public comment that carry on the good spirit the current wait rule carries," he said.

Preston is one of four candidates for three council seats in the April 4 election.

Lorenz said she "would come to that discussion with an open mind” if the council considered eliminating the wait period.

“I don’t know that it’s altogether bad because it allows somebody else to have a turn (to comment),” she said. “If something is needed more frequently than 45 days, probably we should talk about it face to face.”

Council member Jeff Fritzen said he's "generally supportive of our policy."

"I do not see where it prevents anyone from communicating their thoughts to the council, unless one considers the public aspect as important as the message," he said. "When the level of interest in an issue is high, we've modified our rules to allow for extensive public input."

A notable recent example is when the council considered an incentive agreement for Rivian Automotive on Dec. 12. The council waived the wait period, allowing frequent speakers, including Tiritilli, to speak that night.

"I'd prefer to let the process play out and see what the AG's office has to say," said council member R.C. McBride.

Council members Cheryl Gaines and Kevin McCarthy could not be reached for comment. McCarthy also is on the April ballot.

Follow Derek Beigh on Twitter: @pg_beigh

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