Two weeks ago freshman Council Chairman Andrew Touma introduced his first genuine piece of lawmaking -- a resolution changing Section 3.9.d of the City Charter, paragraph 3 of Item V, which allows citizens to address the Niagara Falls Council for up to five minutes.
His Jan 20th resolution called for speakers to be limited to three minutes, along with strictures on politeness and a provision that the council need not respond to questions or comments.
The resolution was tabled after Councilman Charles Walker objected to its controversial nature. Many criticized it at the council meeting and on social media - for its anti-free speech element and objected to the "foolishness" of cutting speakers' times by two minutes.
The number of speakers average about six at any council meeting; the net time savings would be 12 minutes. Critics asked, what’s the point in cutting the speaking time by two minutes each?
An insistent Chairman Touma put the resolution back on the council agenda for the Feb. 2 council meeting in revised form and while it failed to pass - with Council members Glenn Choolokian and Walker voting against it, Touma and Kristen Grandinetti voting for it and Robert?Anderson absent, it gives a peak into the mindset of Touma and what he wanted to accomplish.
His revised resolution cut the loaf of bread in half, calling for four minutes per speaker (a one minute cut) yet took away other free speech elements of Section 3.9.d of the City Charter.
Touma's revised resolution would allow the chairman to limit the number of speakers at his sole discretion and deny some speakers the right to speak at all.
It read "The Chairperson …. may limit the number of speakers on a topic or agenda item or the overall public speaking time if the same will unduly delay the commencement of the agenda."
It also reinforces the nature of how speakers must address the council: "All remarks should be addressed to the Council as a body and not to any member thereof. Speakers should refrain from making comments regarding individuals, including elected officials and City employees, unless such comments pertain to such individual's duties within City government."
Touma’s resolution goes on to permit, in somewhat strangely worded form, something already permitted: the recording of council meetings by those in attendance.
"(A)ll members of the public and all public officials shall be allowed to take audio and/or visual recordings (including photographs) of the public portions of City Council meetings. …. Any such recordings must be done in a matter which does not interfere with the meeting.
"If the Chairperson determines that any such recording is being done in an intrusive manner, taking into consideration, among other factors, the frequency and brightness of any lights, distance from the deliberations of the City Council, size of the equipment and the ability of the public to view and participate in the meeting, the Chairperson may request an accommodation to avoid the interference, and if not complied with, may ask the individual(s) to leave the Council Chambers."
In defense of his plan , Touma, in an interview with the Niagara Gazette, compared time limits to word counts on guest submissions at the Gazette and other papers.
“There’s got to be a limit,” Touma told the Gazette - said limit in Touma’s mind being not five - as it has been for decades - but four minutes for residents to address the present city council.
The Reporter recalls when Sam Fruscione was chairman and NACC supporters came by the dozens when he dared to vote to cut their funding. They got pretty personal and angry. Fruscione let them talk as long as they liked and as many as wanted - all criticizing him.
It was a different era.
Look for Touma to re-present his speech limitation resolution.