Some want to address Raleigh’s city council. They say the rules don’t make it easy.

Friends of man fatally shot by Raleigh police unable to speak at city council meeting

Friends of Soheil Mojarrad, who was shot and killed by a Raleigh Police officer, missed the deadline to sign up to speak and were unable to address the Raleigh City Council.
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Friends of Soheil Mojarrad, who was shot and killed by a Raleigh Police officer, missed the deadline to sign up to speak and were unable to address the Raleigh City Council.

Throughout Wake County, many residents are able to speak at local government meetings without much notice. They can sign up just minutes before city or town meetings start to share their concerns or ask questions.

But that’s not the case in Raleigh.

If a person wants to speak at a Raleigh City Council meeting, she has to sign up two weeks in advance and almost always before the list of meeting topics has been released to the public.

The delay is meant to give city staff enough time to research and address any resident complaint or concern. But some say it is restrictive and prevents people from speaking about timely issues.

Rules that ‘don’t comply with real life’

Friends of Soheil Mojarrad, the 30-year-old man who was shot and killed by a Raleigh police officer in April, didn’t meet the deadline to address Raleigh leaders during this week’s council meeting.

The deadline to sign up to speak at the May 7 Raleigh City Council meeting was noon April 23 — three days after Mojarrad was shot.

By the time Mojarrad’s friends realized they wanted to speak about his death, the deadline had passed, said Ivanna Gonzalez. She had signed up to speak about police oversight but instead used her time to talk about Mojarrad.

“I am here to read a statement on behalf of Soheil Mojarrad’s friends,” she said during Tuesday’s meeting. “Soheil was killed on April 20th, 2019.”

At that point, she was interrupted by Raleigh Mayor Pro Tem Corey Branch, as two people walked down toward the podium and stood next to Gonzalez. The city’s rules state that only one person is allowed to speak and stand at the podium at a time.

“Hold on one second,” Branch said. “We can’t ...”

“They’re going to sit right behind me,” Gonzalez said. “So you can see the faces of (his) friends. ... I just want to be clear about the ways that the rules of decorum do not comply with life. And how disappointed we are that they weren’t able to address y’all directly.”

It’s not the first time that members of Raleigh Police Accountability Taskforce (PACT) have expressed frustration with the city’s rules for public speaking.

Stephanie Lormand interrupts a Raleigh City Council meeting on May 7, after a man was shot and killed by a Raleigh Police officer. People began chanting and asking for police reform.

Raleigh’s rules

Each speaker is given three minutes.

Along with the two-week notice, Raleigh’s rules of decorum state that a person isn’t allowed to stop early and give their excess time to another speaker. There also are no deviations from the list of speakers.

The rules were changed shortly after a tense meeting with some PACT members in 2018.

Stephanie Lormand, the woman who spoke from her seat and disrupted the Tuesday city council meeting, said she didn’t understand the city’s policy for making people sign up in advance. She called it a restriction on Raleigh’s public speaking.

Raleigh leaders unfairly enforce the rules depending on who is speaking, she said. For instance, she said members of PACT try to prioritize “black and brown voices.” The group tried to change the order of PACT speakers during a meeting so people who were white spoke at the end. They were allowed to do it, but the rules were changed shortly after, she said.

The city has always had a deadline for people to sign-up to speak, though the time frames have changed throughout the years, said Raleigh Clerk Gail Smith.

There are pros and cons to to the city’s speaking policy, and there have been no recent discussions about changing the rules, Branch said.

“I don’t think there’s a perfect policy,” he said. “One of the things is it does allow staff to respond to people’s questions and items.”

Sometimes city staff members are able to address a speaker’s concern before they speak, he said.

Other cities

State law requires cities to hold at least one public comment period per month, but it gives local leaders wiggle room on how long people can speak and for creating rules that provide for the “order and decorum” of the meeting.

In Durham, if someone wants to comment on something the city council is set to discuss, they are able to sign up to speak before the meeting and comment when city leaders approach the topic. If someone wants to speak about an item not related to the agenda, they can sign up to speak during the council’s work session. There are six spots for people who have signed up in advance, said Durham Clerk Diana Schreiber, and there are four other spots for people who show up at the meeting on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Chapel Hill residents are also able to sign up before a town meeting to speak, but their time may be restricted if there are more than 15 people signed up to talk, said Chapel Hill Clerk Sabrina Oliver.

In Charlotte, people are encouraged to fill out a form online in advance to speak during a meeting, but they also are able to sign up at the meeting. There are only a set number of spots available for people to speak and speakers could be put on a wait list if they wait until the same day.

There isn’t a simple answer to “how common” any practice is for signing up for public comment at local government meetings, said John Stephens, an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Government.

“Briefly, local governments may vary their practices based on how they want to handle the agenda for each of their meetings,” he said. “Some ‘long agendas’ may mean less time for public comment and/or more advance notice for people signing up.”

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Anna Johnson covers Raleigh and Wake County for the News & Observer. She has previously covered city government, crime and business for newspapers across North Carolina and received many North Carolina Press Association awards, including first place for investigative reporting. She is a 2012 alumna of Elon University.
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