It’s official. Members of the public who want to make comments during Harford County Council meetings are limited to three minutes if speaking as an individual and five minutes if speaking for a “bona fide” organization, according to an amendment to the council’s rules of procedure approved Tuesday evening.
The council voted 6-0 in favor of the amendment — Councilman Joe Woods was absent — but it generated expressions of concern from two residents who spoke during the public comment portion of the council meeting.
Fallston resident Robert Banker, who served in the Army during the Korean War, said he considers the time limits a violation of free speech, according to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“This is a constitutional question, and I ask you not to employ this new procedure,” Banker said, reading from prepared remarks.
The three and five-minute time limits are not new. Council President Richard Slutzky said earlier in the meeting that they have been in the rules of procedure for “decades.”
He announced Nov. 21 that the time limits would be in effect going forward. The vote Tuesday made them part of the rules of procedure.
The rules governing public participation in council legislative sessions, before they were amended, gave the council president the authority to set time limits if there is a large group of speakers.
The amendment sets those limits on “each person requesting to speak at either a public hearing or [legislative session] agenda item #17, comments and input from attending citizens,” according to the text.
“Early in my term [as president] I was lenient to the point if we only had three or four speakers I would allow them to go longer than the three or five minutes,” said Slutzky, who has been on the council since 2002 and was elected president in 2014. “That probably has turned out to be a mistake because there were those that significantly abused the timeline.”
Council Attorney Charles Kearney Jr. said the three and five-minute rule for public comments was “routine” when Billy Boniface was council president from 2006 to 2014. Boniface is now director of administration for County Executive Barry Glassman.
“Prior to that, it depended on the size of the crowd,” he said after Tuesday’s meeting.
Kearney was the council attorney from 1996 to 2012, and he returned to that position in 2014.
Slutzky said he and other council members heard concerns about speakers going for up to 25 minutes from citizens in the audience and those watching meetings online or on television.
He said people watching remotely reported they did not feel like they could address the council in person if they had to wait as long as an hour for their turn to speak.
Slutzky stressed officials “will not be strict in the application” of time limits if a speaker needs an extra 20 to 30 seconds to finish their sentence.
“It will be, fundamentally, in the range of three minutes for individuals and five minutes for those representing a bona-fide organization,” he said.
Councilman Mike Perrone defended amending the rules.
“Eventually hindsight will give us, and the people we serve and represent, a chance to evaluate the appropriateness of the decision, but for the time being I think this is the right decision,” he said.
Bel Air resident John Mallamo, whose lengthy public comments about the expansion of the Harford County Airport at prior meetings prompted council members to amend their rules, did not hold back when he addressed the council Tuesday.
He said he was reminded, when watching Slutzky’s announcement Nov. 21, of the climactic scene in the film “The Wizard of Oz.” A curtain is pulled back to reveal the powerful wizard was “a little mouse of a man engaged in projecting the illusion of great authority,” Mallamo said.
Mallamo described three-minute comments as enough time for citizens to state their issues and be told, “‘Thank you, there is nothing we can do, good night,’ largely ignoring the issues presented.”
“Councilman Perrone, I do not expect assistance from this council,” Mallamo said. “I have deemed you, and as you speak for them, your colleagues, and indeed the County Council as a body to be immaterial.”
Banker, the Korean War veteran, acknowledged Mallamo’s prior comments had been long and “boring,” but “it is his right to exercise this right” to free speech.
He said the First Amendment protects even the “most detestable and egregious” speech, such as the right of neo-Nazis to march and display swastikas.
“I simply do not agree or believe that the power you wish to exercise is legitimate under the First Amendment,” Banker told the council.