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City Council members get heated over how agenda items are chosen

SALISBURY — At Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, Mayor Al Heggins presented a new version of the form used to request that a topic be placed on the agenda.

Two major issues emerged as council members discussed what they liked and disliked about the change.

The first was whether to give the public a chance to directly add items to the agenda.

On her updated form, Heggins added a section that identifies the person who submits an agenda item request according to four categories — public, council, manager and staff.

In Mayor Pro Tem David Post’s revision of Heggins’ form, he crossed out “public” so that only three categories remained.

“I just think the public does absolutely have the right, but they should go through a councilperson to make a request,” Post said. “(At the) North Carolina legislature, the United States Congress, the public cannot say, ‘Hey, I want to be on the agenda.’”

Heggins said any items submitted by the public would still have to be approved by council members and that the form would simply provide people a way to ask that their item be considered.

Post said that as it stands now, anything that the public submits for consideration would end up on the agenda because the council has no protocol for how to approve or deny requests.

Councilman Brian Miller said that if the public had a way to submit agenda item requests directly, it would require that council members choose who has the right to speak and who doesn’t.

“You know, when we start granting some groups access and other groups we don’t grant access, then we get into a situation where we’re treating one differently from another. And that’s why I had asked for a steer toward having those done in a public-comment forum,” Miller said.

Councilwoman Tamara Sheffield said she has “no problem” with having residents submit agenda items.

“Having said that, I do agree that, in order to be approved and be placed on the agenda, it would need a City Council champion to make that happen. A sponsor,” Sheffield said.

Heggins said that although she wants agenda items to be filtered through the council, people needing “champions” to suggest agenda items could be “a tricky thing.”

“Everybody in the community may not have a champion on the council. And so if we leave it to certain segments of the community having to have a champion from the council, they might not have a champion on the council,” Heggins said.

Sheffield said she would want to make it her mission to be a champion for those who “aren’t familiar or comfortable with council proceedings.”

Councilwoman Karen Alexander said council members’ contact information and photos are on the city’s website in case a person doesn’t know a member and wants one to champion an agenda item.

Mayor’s approval

The second major issue was whether to give the mayor’s office the authority to approve or deny agenda items.

When Heggins updated the form, she added a line at the bottom that said “For Mayor’s Office Only” and gave the mayor’s office the ability to approve or disapprove a request. She also left space for the mayor’s office to specify why the request was approved or denied.

Heggins said she did not add that option to “seize control” of the agenda.

“It was a matter of practicality because I’m here every day. And so it’s hard to call every council member or email every council member and say, ‘Can we have this on the agenda?’” Heggins said.

Post said the mayor’s office does not have the “legislative authority” to approve or deny an agenda request.

“And therefore, I don’t think it’s appropriate for it to even be part of the way we think,” Post said.

Miller said he doesn’t have a problem with the updated form except for the part giving gave the mayor’s office that ability.

“It takes a consensus to get anything done. It takes three members of this body to approve anything,” Miller said. “Anytime we’re doing anything outside the norm or a change in our protocol, it would be good for us to have some kind of consensus process so we don’t spend a lot of time talking about things that a majority of folks don’t have any interest in doing.”

Heggins said she would agree to take the line off the form but added that she just wants to make sure people whose items are denied would know why.

“(Rule 15) still says that a ‘total refusal to consider agenda requests from residents and other interested persons could lead to a negative perception of that council,’” Heggins said. “And I think this council understands that it’s critical for us to have a trusting relationship with our public.”

The “Rule 15” Heggins cited is from the fourth edition of “Suggested Rules of Procedure for a City Council,” which the council has been using as a guide to update its own rules of procedure.

After about 20 minutes of discussion, the council decided to table the update of the agenda form. No decision was made on when the issue would be brought up again.

Contact reporter Jessica Coates at 704-797-4222.

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