If you want to give the Missoula City Council a piece of your mind, you can pretty much do it at any meeting.
Late last year, the council changed the way it adopts ordinances, and the new process is brand-new and isn’t totally clear even to some council members. Their advice on learning the new procedure? Ask City Clerk Marty Rehbein.
In general, the public is free to comment most anytime, Rehbein said. The full council usually meets at 7 p.m. Mondays, and people can talk about things that aren’t on the agenda if they want, usually for three minutes at the most.
“(And) we take public comment on everything that’s on the agenda every single time, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s in committee or at City Council,” Rehbein said.
The new procedure for adopting ordinances is intended to give the public more time to comment once the council has an idea of the direction it’s going on controversial issues. It’s also supposed to set up a process that’s in line with state law, Rehbein said.
In the past, the council used to set a public hearing, hold the hearing and possibly adopt an ordinance the same night of the hearing. Sometimes, an ordinance would change direction 180 degrees when it went from committee to the full council.
For instance, the public was shocked to learn in 2009 the council wanted to strictly enforce a leash law. In that case, after public outcry, Mayor John Engen issued a veto.
Now, Rehbein said, the council has a process to adopt ordinances “on second reading” – and through two possible scenarios (see flowchart). One, which the council will use for items that don’t draw huge public interest, is pretty much the same as it’s always been.
The second way is being used for the first time on the proposed residency requirement, Rehbein said. The council held a public hearing, but it didn’t adopt anything the same night.
On Monday, the council might adopt a residency requirement “on first reading.” In the past, an adoption by the council on the floor would be a done deal – minus a veto – but not this time. This time, an approval on the floor will be a preliminary adoption.
Then, council members must approve the matter again in a second reading, which gives the public a chance to respond to the direction elected officials are going.
“Folks have an idea of where they’re headed with a decision and can come in and offer additional comments, testimony, amendments,” Rehbein said. “And it (the proposed ordinance) can change in second reading to address those if the council wants to do that.”
Having two separate processes seems confusing, especially if council members themselves aren’t totally certain of the procedures. Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, though, said she’s hoping the council will become more familiar with the new method as it puts it to use more often.
She also said another training from the city clerk might be in order for councilors and even interested members of the public. As for public comment, Wolken said it’s always a good time to hear from citizens, and the new procedure for approving ordinances means to capture more from them.
“This is just a way for us to give people more opportunity to come in and tell us what they think,” said Wolken, who chairs the council committee that deals with these rules.
Lastly, state statute says an ordinance must be read and adopted twice, Rehbein said. So when the council uses its old method to adopt an ordinance – one it doesn’t anticipate will draw much public feedback or one with deadlines set by state law – it considers its action to set the public hearing a preliminary adoption. Then, the subsequent adoption on the floor is the second and final one.