Des Moines City Council’s New Public Speaking Rules Draw Condemnation

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The skyline is seen in Iowa’s capital city on October 09, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

DES MOINES, Iowa — The Des Moines City Council passed new public speaking restrictions at Monday’s meeting, drawing backlash from community members who say the council is retaliating against public criticism.

Under the new rules, 20 people were given the opportunity to address the council during the public speaking portion, which was moved to the end of the meeting. Sixty-six people signed up to speak at Monday’s meeting, so that meant 46 of them were not given the chance to speak. The next 20 in the queue who didn’t get to speak will be reserved a spot at the next council meeting. Some people will now have to wait several weeks for the opportunity to address the council.

The city council voted 6-1 to approve the new speaking rules. Josh Mandelbaum was the only council member to vote against the changes. Mandelbaum suggested they expand the public speaking portion to an hour and give more community members the opportunity to speak.

The new rules lengthened the collective speaking time from 30 minutes to 40 minutes. Each person was given two minutes to speak. Previously, the council limited individual public comments to three minutes or by taking the collective 30 minutes divided by the number of individual speakers, whichever was less. At the last council meeting on April 19, community members were given just 25 seconds to speak because more than 70 people signed up to talk.

Nearly everyone who addressed the council during Monday night’s meeting spoke out against the new rules. Adam Callanan, an organizer with Des Moines People’s Town Hall, said the speaking restrictions are the council’s attempt to retaliate against community members who are critical of them.

“It’s retaliation to criticism. We don’t even have the freedom to criticize the government if criticizing the government means we get punished and retaliated against,” said Callanan.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie said the new rules will improve the flow of the meetings and expand individuals’ public speaking times. However, Callanan pointed out that the amendment actually decreases the individual speaking time from three minutes, as the previous rules allowed, to just two minutes.

“They might have added ten minutes to the end, but that’s only by robbing time from the majority. This meeting they robbed time from 46 people,” Callanan said.

The number of public commenters at city council meetings surged over the past year as the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) have voiced their concerns about injustices in the community. The council implemented previous public speaking restrictions last year after meetings lasted several hours due to the number of public commenters.

“If you can’t be bothered to sit through a full and fair public comment portion, then you shouldn’t be taking up space on this council,” said Des Moines resident Giada Morresi. “Start holding yourself accountable to your constituents, not just DMPD, or police unions, or [City Manager] Scott Sanders, or your own self-interests and financial gains.”

Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, said the city council is more interested in serving corporate interests than the interests of their constituents.

“It is once again the council’s attempt to silence the community from having their voices heard and speaking out about relevant issues happening in their own community,” Cavil said.

Iowa CCI said the council could avoid much of the criticism it faces if it actually implemented changes after hearing the community’s concerns.

“Rather than move the community around like chess pieces, we believe the remedy is simple,” Iowa CCI said in a statement. “Set politics aside, listen to your constituents and take action on how we can address the issues being lifted up from the community. Once they figure that out, they won’t have to change the rules every few months.”

Des Moines City Council meetings have been conducted virtually via Zoom after all in-person public meetings were suspended in March 2020 due to COVID-19. The city council will resume in-person public meetings at City Hall on June 14.

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