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Posted on Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

Washtenaw County officials place new limits on public speaking time during meetings

By Ryan J. Stanton

Citizens who want to speak their minds before the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners will have fewer opportunities to do so in 2012.

Commissioners took action Wednesday night to change their board rules, eliminating opportunities for public input at the tail ends of meetings.

They also reduced the time each speaker is allowed to address the board at the start of each meeting from five to three minutes.

The changes apply to full county board meetings as well as the Ways and Means Committee meetings that immediately precede them the same night.


Local resident Thomas Partridge speaks before the Ann Arbor City Council in this photo from September. He also regularly speaks before the county board, but the time he can spend doing so will be more limited now.

Ryan J. Stanton |

Until now, any individual wishing to address commissioners had five minutes at the beginning and end of both meetings — for a total of 20 minutes per person in a single night — as well as other opportunities to speak on public hearings for specific issues or proposals.

Each citizen now gets three minutes at the start of Ways and Means, and then another three minutes at the start of the full board meeting that follows. And if there are any public hearings, another three minutes will be allowed on each issue.

Local resident Thomas Partridge, who regularly speaks before the county board at every opportunity and often runs down the five-minute clock four or more times per night, immediately protested the board rules changes that were approved by an 8-3 vote.

"I think they're unethical," he said. "And I think they're particularly despicable and discriminatory toward senior citizens and disabled people."

Partridge also regularly speaks before other bodies, including the Ann Arbor City Council and Ann Arbor Transportation Authority.

County Board Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, argued there still are adequate opportunities for citizen participation.

He also said the rules changes have nothing to do with Partridge, even though some commissioners have complained about his speaking in the past.

Aside from Partridge, there aren't many citizens in Washtenaw County who regularly speak before the board, though commissioners were inundated with hours of public commentary from advocates of various causes during the last round of budget cuts.

The three commissioners who voted against reducing the opportunities for citizen participation were Felicia Brabec, D-Pittsfield Township; Rolland Sizemore Jr., D-Ypsilanti Township; and Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti.


Yousef Rabhi

"I believe so much in citizen participation," Peterson said. "We serve at the will of the people, and people should have the right to exercise their concerns about issues."

Peterson argued not everybody gets off work in time to comment at the start of a county board meeting, and so citizen input at the ends of meetings should be allowed. He also said citizens should be allowed to speak for five minutes at a time, not just three minutes.

Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, also expressed disappointment that the board was reducing opportunities for citizen input at meetings.

"I don't believe that limiting citizens' participation right now is the right move," he said. "But I recognize that many board members might feel that this is the right thing to do."

Rabhi, who chairs the board's working session meetings, offered a compromise on the floor and voted for the rules changes only after he won support for an amendment to avoid reducing the opportunities for citizen participation at working sessions.

"I firmly believe that the working sessions are an opportunity for citizens to be participants in our process, to express themselves before us," he said.

Working session meetings are generally held multiple times per month on Thursdays. No action is taken at them, but they're where commissioners delve into important issues before they come up for consideration at the committee or full board level. Citizens still have five minutes to speak both before and after the working sessions.

Counting those 10 minutes, plus the three minutes before Ways and Means, plus the three minutes before the full board meeting, plus another three minutes if there's a public hearing, Smith said each citizen theoretically still has 19 minutes he or she can spend bending the ears of commissioners before any action is taken on an issue.

"In reality you still have an abundance of opportunity to comment on any given proposal," he said, adding it was redundant to have back-to-back public comment periods at the end of Ways and Means and then at the start of the following board meeting.


Dan Smith

Commissioner Dan Smith, R-Northfield Township, proposed another change to the board rules Wednesday night, one that would allow commissioners to abstain from voting on resolutions where the board is merely expressing support or opposition for something but otherwise taking no action.

He objected last month when the board voted on a resolution opposing a new state ban on domestic partner benefits for public employees, a law that directly affects the county.

"I would like to allow members the opportunity to abstain from voting on such resolutions," he said Wednesday night, not specifically referencing last month's vote.

Commissioner Wesley Prater, D-York Township, argued state law requires commissioners to vote either yes or no on issues except in cases where there are conflicts of interest.

The county's attorney took several minutes to review the law during the meeting but said he couldn't find the section Prater was referencing. The board agreed to table Dan Smith's proposal until the second meeting in February so further review can be done.

Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman, D-Ann Arbor, criticized the proposal, saying commissioners are elected by the public to have an opinion and to govern.

"And to have no opinion, I think, is very sad," she said, suggesting abstaining from voting would just be used as a political tactic to avoid taking stances on difficult issues.

"I would be ashamed to think that I was so concerned about my position that I couldn't vote yes or no," she said.

In other action during Wednesday's meeting, officers were elected for 2012 with no changes from last year. Conan Smith was chosen by his peers to stay on as chairman for another year, while Alicia Ping, R-Saline, will continue to serve as vice chairwoman.

Rabhi will stay working session chairman, and Rob Turner, R-Chelsea, will stay working session vice chairman.

Sizemore will stay chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, while Dan Smith will stay vice chairman of that committee.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Sat, Jan 7, 2012 : 1:51 a.m.

Hey Ryan, caught your democrat puff piece on "the election" in Wednesdays paper! I see your corrupt democrat election campaign disguised as "reporting" is in full swing. I hope the democrat party appreciates and rewards your "reporting" wink wink, with a nice check every week - don't let them cheat you out of the money you so clearly earn! God knows your hero Obama is going to need every biased, corrupt, Kool Aid drinking word you write to have a shot at continuing his efforts to dismantle the greatest nation in the history of the planet in his own failed Euro socialist image. ...but I wonder if, when AA dot com alienates more then half of the voting public with your filthy democrat gibberish, how long they will survive in the free market you and your boss have so much contempt for. ....that is except when they collect tens of millions in campaign contributions from the Solyndra's and Wall Street. Keep those checks rolling in Ryan!!


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 2:08 p.m.

The nuts who show up at these meetings and waste everyone's time with their incoherent ramblings and conspiracies are going to hate this decision! On the bright side, it's a victory for the aliens who can now continue to hover around Ann Arbor without the commissioners knowing about them! Somebody should demand that Conan state on the record that he's still a human and not trying to cover up the activities at Area 51.

cornelius McDougenschniefferburgenstein jr. 3 esq.

Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 8:15 p.m.

partridge for president!


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 12:40 p.m.

"Local resident Thomas Partridge, who regularly speaks before the county board AT EVERY OPPORTUNITY and often runs down the five-minute clock four or more times per night, immediately protested the board rules changes that were approved by an 8-3 vote." This sounds more like an opinion than reporting, in MY opinion. Is the reporter quite sure that he does it at every opportunity, or could he actually miss some opportunities?


Fri, Jan 6, 2012 : 12:12 a.m.

I suspect Mr Partridge is the reason this came up in the first place. Have any of you sat through his speeches?


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 10:25 p.m.

The real problem is----------------


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 8:07 p.m.

Sounds like this is a "Megan's" law syndrome in which one person commits a "grievous" offense and a law is made to specifically address it, in Megan's case, an heinous act. Mr. Partridge is apparently the target in this case. Maybe it's justified in his case, maybe not. I'd like to see some evidence that citizen comment time is obstructing the official business of the commissioners but then, what is the official business of the commissioners if not listening and working on citizens behalf? Sometimes it seems there is a select group they actually work for.....for the rest of us, it's just "lip service".


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 8:06 p.m.

What is missing from the overwhelming majority of the comments is acknowledgment that the County Commission has essential government functions The Commissioners are elected to perform those functions. You may or may not like individual Commissioners or how they do their jobs, but the recourse is at election time. Unelected individuals (whether they were previously rejected by the voters or chose not to run) do not have equal debating rights with the elected officials. The priority is for the job of the Commission to be done, and that takes time. Public comment is a good thing, but it cannot be allowed to crowd out the business of the Commission. the few habitual offenders who hog the public comment slots, and use them to disrupt rather than to advise, need to be curbed. It might make sense to curb the total time allowed to a particular individual, rather than just trim the time slots.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 8:02 p.m.

This is the limiting of democracy, pure and simple.

hut hut

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 7:53 p.m.

The Commissioners action gives the impression to the public that they suffer from a bunker mentality.

hut hut

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 7:50 p.m.

Essentially, they're singling out Mr Partridge.

Vivienne Armentrout

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:38 p.m.

I'll now join the chorus of those who think your polls are poorly constructed. I voted to say that it was a bad idea, but the part about "shame on those commissioners" was unnecessary and I would never express it that way. I almost always assume that commissioners and other elected officials vote on most measures out of conviction and purpose, and leveling opprobrium on them for their decision is inappropriate. You often put unnecessary embellishments into your polls, that put words into the mouths of respondents that they would not use. By doing so, you cheapen the level of discourse just as thoughtless comments do. That said, I regret that they took this action and I applaud Mr. Rabhi for opposing it.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:26 p.m.

If the commissioners dont want you to speak at the meeting you can always grab them by the arm as they walk to their cars. If I were a commissioner I would rather hear what you had to say in the meeting and not some dark parking lot. Just saying.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:19 p.m.

How dare the public get in the way of the commissioners doing their work.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:13 p.m.

The limitation is put on the public because they have no intention of listening to you fatigues them too much.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:08 p.m.

This is consistent with other local politicians, those that hold public positions, etc. Why on earth would they want to allow the public to speak at all?


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 4:55 p.m.

The sad reality is that at various meeting venues, from the county to the city to the UM student council, a regular less- than- handful of one issue ( and almost always issues utterly irrelevant to the local business at hand!!) cranks regularly tries to hijack and abuse the patience of those elected officials attempting to discharge the duties they were elected to address. Short of outright banning of such free speech abusers, limitations on their time to abuse seems a reasonable compromise.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 4:20 p.m.

The Democrats voted against this rule change and the republicans voted for it. It seems to be a pattern in this state to chip away at Democracy led by the party of small government the republicans. The EFM law that virtually cancels a citizens vote for an elected official. Making it harder for citizens to vote( Voter suppression ) and now this, limiting speech viewed as opposition to this council;s agenda.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 8:32 p.m.

For clarity ... In philosophy, 4 Dems (counting Yousef Rabhi) were against the changes, 4 Dems were for the changes, and all 3 GOP board members were for the changes. In the actual vote, 3 Dems voted against the changes, and 5 Dems and all 3 GOP board members voted for the changes.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:10 p.m.

So, who is correct - Hank or Dilbert?


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 4:59 p.m.

Five democrats voted for this rule change.

cornelius McDougenschniefferburgenstein jr. 3 esq.

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 4:14 p.m.

i think partridge should be given extra minutes due to his eloquent inteligent lectures.i would like to spearhead the "partridge family"a think tank(mensa only need apply.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:48 p.m.

I agree that it was redundant to have "back-to-back public comment periods at the end of Ways and Means and then at the start of the following board meeting." However, the move from a 5 minute limit to 3 minutes does indeed seem to fly in the face of representative government. Yes, the meetings at the end of last year were painfully long as many citizens expressed their views on the budget cuts. But that is not an "abuse of privileges." Many people spoke from HSHV and from human services groups. They each crafted their own comments (it's not like they were reading from a script) and seemed truly concerned about the budget cuts - I think it was their right to speak, not a privilege or an abuse. The board's budget cut decisions made many citizens upset, and the board needs to respect that and listen to public reaction.

David Cahill

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:30 p.m.

The three-minute limit is what the AA City Council has had for quite a while. I don't see a big deal here.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 5:32 p.m.

Until you have $3/4 million dollar peice of art in front of the building.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:30 p.m.

More rights of citizens taken away. No surprise here.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:10 p.m.

I thank my commissioner Felecia Brabec for voting against this change. Three minutes may be enough time to make an announcement but ti is not enough time to explain a matter to the Board. Also, part of the reason to have public comments is to comment on matters that occur at the meeting. If there are no comments at the end of the meeting, that is not possible. This change was almost certainly a response to the Humane Societies tactic of bringing in 40 or so people to speak at every meeting, which went on for hours. Don't punish the rest of us for their abuse of the privilege.

James D'Amour

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:49 p.m.

Bad call on the commissioners part. I think this is a solution in search of a problem. Sure, perhaps someone can get what they want to say out there in three minutes as a2grateful has suggested, but really, what's the harm here, I say to my good friends on the commission. Public commentary is part of the fundamental expression of free speech. So, sure, potentially you have a gadfly that's going to suck an extra four minutes of your time meeting after meeting. So be it. If it makes her happy and make her feel important, even if it does nothing for what she believes in (if she has truly a belief), again so be it. As Roger Nash Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU once said, "How can you find out if a #*#*#*# is a #*#*#*# unless you hear what they have to say." And of course, one person's gadfly is another person's activist. Also, of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you serve on a public board, whether you are appointed or elected, you ARE the public's servant. And yes, despite all its perks and prestige, you have a duty to the public, and if it means pretending to listen for an extra five minutes, so be it. It's not going to hurt you if every now and then you have a group taking over the open public commentary section. If it gets to be a habit, it means there's either a disconnect or if it is in your eyes a "fringe" you address it without infringing on ANYONE's right to free speech. One should better be happy that anyone's paying attention. That being said, if one doesn't like it that much, then it's time that person serving on that board should develop a thicker skin or consider departing from that body. I truly doubt, though, particularly in this circumstance, that the commissioners found public commentary that onerous in the performance of their duties.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:48 p.m.

Democracy is too messy. I'm glad our benevolent leaders are streamlining things.....

Lake Trout

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:36 p.m.

For those saying shame on the commissioners who voted for the limitations, I would suspect that they do not or have never been to the meetings when there have been several citizens wishing to speak and wait patiently (or not) while individuals with their own agendas, not necessarily on topic for that specific meeting, use their 5 minutes (times 4 ) to speak. While I completely agree that all citizens hava a right to be heard, it should be with the understanding that they do NOT have a right to monopolize the time just to hear themselves speak.

Ron Granger

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:31 p.m.

Shame on the commissioners who voted to silence the public.

Kai Petainen

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:27 p.m.

what a way to discriminate those that have speech impairments, slow-speaking, stuttering, or 'english as a second language'. part of the job -- of an elected official... is the ability to listen to opposing viewpoints. you don't have to agree with it, but you must show respect.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:23 p.m.

"Representatives" who steal taxpayers' funds, then take away their right to voice their opinion? Nah, nothing fishy going on here.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:06 p.m.

Why not simply do away with the election of Washtenaw County Commissioners? after all, most people are not smart enough to understand what they do! and they really don't need the citizen input, Like Commissioner Barbara Levin Bergman, D-Ann Arbor, says "to have an opinion and to govern"

Mr. Ed

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 1:59 p.m.

I was at a meeting when Conan Smith put down Mr. Partridge.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 1:41 p.m.

Perhaps Commissioner Yousef Rabhi can explain to us why he said, ""I don't believe that limiting citizens' participation right now is the right move," he said. "But I recognize that many board members might feel that this is the right thing to do," and then voted FOR this new rule *limiting* citizens' right to speak at county meetings??

Yousef Rabhi

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 8:19 p.m.

Mr. Ranzini, The initial proposal that was in front of us would have eliminated the public comment time at the end of the Working Session, Ways and Means and the full Board meeting. Additionally, it would have reduced the time for the remaining comment periods from 5 minutes to 3 minutes. I was and still am strongly opposed to limiting citizen participation. I believe that people should be able to come before us and read a phone book if they chose! I was elected to serve at the will of the people and believe that I should take every opportunity that I can to listen to what they have to say. I made it very clear to my colleagues that I was against this proposal. Going into the meeting, I had done my homework. I knew that the proposal had more than enough votes to pass. I was faced with two options. Either I could make myself look good and take a valiant NO vote that would have accomplished absolutely nothing. Or I could try to salvage at least some of the citizen participation time. I feel that I was more effective in defending my belief that citizens should have ample time by working towards a compromise instead of recording a NO vote that would not have changed the outcome. Had I simply voted NO we would be stuck with the initial proposal: no public comment at the end of Working Session, WM and Board and only 3 minutes to speak. I was able to salvage at least some of the public comment time by proposing to retain the 5 minute time limit and keep the comment at the end of Working Session. I feel that by doing this I was able to defend my beliefs to the extent possible given the will of the Board majority. Thank you for your question. Yousef Rabhi

Long Time No See

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 7:36 p.m.

I'm kind of surprised you found that confusing, since it seemed fairly clearly stated in the article (though maybe the information about the compromise was added after you commented?). It appears to be an example of political compromise, something that I find very refreshing. He managed to get the majority to modify their proposal in order to allow more public comment time than they had initially planned.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 3:32 p.m.

This is not the first time this guy has done this. He seems to be able to speak out of both sides of this mouth depending on his agenda.

Ryan J. Stanton

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:21 p.m.

I asked him about that after the meeting. The rules changes were going to pass with or without his vote and he just felt fortunate to get the compromise that he proposed to not reduce citizen participation time at working sessions.

Jimmy McNulty

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:16 p.m.

Great question, I had to re-read that part and thought the same thing. He expresses disappointment with reduced opportunities for input, but then goes and votes for it anyway.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 1:19 p.m.

Sweet. If you don't want to hear what your constituents have to say - just take away their right to say it. I think there should be a state audit of Washtenaw County finances. I bet it would leave a few commissioners just as speechless as their electoral base.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 1:19 p.m.

Does this surprise anyone? This is becoming the way our government runs; health care was rammed through against the will of the people, we are stuck with having to stop every 500 feet on plymouth road for pedestrians who don't know how to cross the street, and now they want to silence our voices at these meeting; publice servants or servant public? You decide..............


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 1:16 p.m.

The amended time limit is ample for citizen input. Three minutes is plenty of time to state one's view, especially if comments are prepared and crafted ahead of time. Of course, there are some that would prefer to filibuster the entire meeting. Others seem to enjoy hearing themselves speak in front of a captive audience. Some speakers state the same personal agendas, time slot after time slot, meeting after meeting, year after year, regardless of topic discussed by the board. The County Boards have been very polite and accommodating to those speaking within their former rules. I am glad to see the rule change, given the excesses that occurred in those rules.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 1:48 p.m.

An issue I see in relation to your response, particularly the last sentence about being very polite and accommodating, is that the Commissioners are their at the behest of and for the people, not the other way around. The commissioners are elected to represent the people and hear the concerns of the people and potentially act on the concerns. They have no appropriate option than to be polite and accommodating.

hut hut

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 1:11 p.m.

Conan Smith must go. This is not the first time he's been in favor of limiting public input and open debate.

Stephen Lange Ranzini

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 12:33 p.m.

Eliminating the right of citizens to speak at the end of each meeting is wrong. There is not a public hearing opportunity to speak on each issue discussed by commissioners during a meeting, only on a limited number of topics. Sometimes the importance of an item cannot be understood in advance from the agenda list at the beginning of the meeting but only after hearing commissioners debating that topic.


Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 11:34 a.m.

In my opinion, this is what happens when people put progressives into office. I believe that progressives think they have all the answers and knowledge--and they don't think you or I are smart enough to participate in government. Progressive politicians are democrats, republicans, and independents. People need to start researching and understanding the cancer that is destroying our communities and nation--progressivism.

Greg M

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 6:08 p.m.

No, it's what happens when you put people into office.

Alan Goldsmith

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 11:28 a.m.

If I were Conan Smith, and still owing the County taxpayers money that hasn't been repaid for 'expenses' he received as a Commissioner, I'd want to cut back on the public's right to speak up too. That's what hack politicians do.

Ron Granger

Thu, Jan 5, 2012 : 2:12 p.m.

Testify Alan!