AUBURN — The City Council was split Monday on a proposal that would lower the time limit during the council’s first public comment period to 15 minutes.

During a workshop discussion, officials debated a series of changes, which staff said were intended to “allow a fair and adequate opportunity for the public to be heard . . . while ensuring that the time allowed for public input does not interfere with addressing the scheduled agenda.”

Among the changes would be to place a limit of 15 minutes on the first public session at each meeting and to give the mayor and council more authority over the sessions. There is already a three-minute limit for each individual speaker.

While Mayor Jason Levesque argued the merits of the rules, stating that organizations and business owners sometimes have to wait through long sessions in order to conduct city business, other councilors said limiting public comment sends the wrong message and long waits have not been an issue.

The rules place a 45-minute limit on the first session, with no time limit on the second open session held at the end of the meeting.

Councilor Katie Boss said that since the number of residents speaking during the first open session hovers around two or three, “it doesn’t appear to be an issue, because it doesn’t go past the time allotted.”

Levesque said the rules were designed to make it easier for the council “to conduct the city business of all residents.”

Assistant City Manager Phil Crowell, who presented the proposal, said it is designed to create more consistent guidelines and to cut down on liability for cities.

Crowell said if implemented, the council could make the decision to suspend the rules to continue open session longer than 15 minutes, if it chose.

In a letter submitted to the Sun Journal, former councilor and mayoral candidate Adam Lee said the proposal does not show a government “that wishes to hear from those it governs.” He said beyond the time restriction, the proposal also gives the mayor greater authority to deem comments “out of order.”

“If this proposal is approved, how does the city of Auburn plausibly say it is an open, transparent and trustworthy government,” he said.

During the workshop, Councilor Belinda Gerry said, “If someone tells us we’re not doing our job we should sit here and listen, as long as they’re respectful.”

According to a list of the proposed rules, “As a limited designated public forum, the City Council does not have the right to prohibit disparaging, rude and other remarks of a personal nature. But, because of the potential implications, including personal liability of the speakers, speakers are encouraged to strive to be accurate in their statements and avoid making personal, rude, or provocative remarks.”

Others, including Councilor Holly Lasagna, said the city should be setting a friendlier tone for encouraging public comment, rather than adding restrictions.

“We’re here to hear what people want to say,” she said.

“Clarity of rules is important, but having too many restrictions makes it a barrier,” Boss said, adding that speaking at a podium is “already intimidating” for residents.

Crowell said the council will be asked to vote on the proposal this month.

No one spoke during either public comment period Monday.

CROWELL CONTRACT APPROVED

Also on Monday, the council approved a five-year employment contract with Phil Crowell, who will become the city manager on July 1.

The move was initially announced Feb. 18, when City Manager Peter Crichton said he would retire at the end of the fiscal year following a three-year stint.

Crowell, the former Auburn police chief, was named assistant city manager in 2018, and according to officials, was selected to replace Crichton following a number of executive session discussions early this year.

Crowell’s salary will be $130,000.

The council voted 5-0-1 to approve the contract, with Gerry abstaining.

Gerry said that while she supports Crowell in the position, she does not agree with pieces of his contract.

“I would like to have sat and heard more of his plans for the city,” she said, adding that the city might have also benefited from opening the candidate search more widely.

Most of the comments praised Crowell and the decision.

“I’m thrilled we’re moving on with Phil,” said Boss. “For the sake of continuity and the community, it’s the right move.”

“I’m proud to be part of this. I think you deserve this 100%,” said Councilor Leroy Walker.

Crichton said later in the meeting that he’s worked with “a lot of fine people” during his 30 years in public service, and that Crowell is “one of the best.”

“He’ll be great as the next city manager,” he said.

Crowell grew up in Auburn, beginning his law enforcement career in 1986 as a military police officer in the U.S. Army. He joined the Auburn Police Department as a patrol officer in 1993, working his way up to chief in 2006.


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