Almost a month ago, Webster Groves Mayor Gerry Welch announced a postponement of public hearings on educational zoning ordinance 8851. At the Oct. 7 announcement, Welch said the purpose of the postponement was to allow the city council to create a proposal utilizing suggestions made by the public from prior hearings.
But when the public hearing reopened Nov. 4, tension and disapproval seemed to be the postponements largest yieldings.
While Tyler Holman, a Webster alumnus, spoke at the podium during the public hearing, Welch leaned over to councilwoman Anne Tolan and quietly exchanged words with her. Mid-sentence,Holman tried to recapture the mayor’s attention.
Welch informed Holman that she and Tolan were checking on his time.
“I’m sorry, but I am bringing new information for this council to make a decision,” Holman said.
“We’re checking your time, sir,” Welch responded again.
Holman continued his presentation for over two minutes before Welch informed him that his time had expired. Holman asked if the information he was presenting was not useful to the council and Welch responded by saying that everyone’s information was useful. Holman tried to continue, but Welch reiterated that his time was over.
“This is a due process issue,” Holman said.
“You’re right, this is a due process issue,” Welch said. “You’re done.”
City attorney Helmut Starr said the council would accept Holman’s documents as part of the public record. Holman asked the council what the policy was for allowing other individual speakers, who had not spoken yet, to yield their time to another individual.
“That is not permitted, sir,” Welch said.
Holman stepped down from the podium and when the next 14 individual speakers were called by Welch, they announced they would yield their time to Holman. But none of their yielded time was transferred to Holman.
After three hours, Welch moved to keep the public hearing open on the zoning ordinance for institutions only, like Webster and Eden. Only those institutions would be able to use the floor of the city council’s next public hearing Nov. 18.
Starr requested that exceptions be made for individuals or groups who wish to provide new and specific information concerning the ordinance. Councilmember Greg Mueller also added that those who wish to make other comments for public record do so with written submissions to the city council.
Confusion over speaking time
Holman said he was only able to address three of the 17 exhibits he had prepared for the public hearing.
“I think all people who are asked to come to a public hearing and are told that they get three minutes, understand that they are entitled to those three minutes, which means that they can yield them to other speakers,” Holman said.
He said three minutes could not possibly address a 30-plus page zoning ordinance. Holman believes there is a fundamental flaw in the council believing they can get a legitimate reason from speakers on why the council should or should not support the ordinance.
“The Webster University Alumni group was allotted ten minutes at the Sept. 18 meeting and were allowed to speak for 30. We were at no point cut off, the city clerk’s time card went up and councilmembers ignored it,” Holman said.
Starr said he was not sure where the confusion lied on how much time should have been allotted, Holman or the council.
“When he spoke previously at a prior public hearing, he had indicated that he was a representative of the alumni association. So, I think the council thought he was speaking again in that capacity, so they would have given him six minutes.”
From this public hearing, Holman said he does not believe the evidence in support of the opposition of the ordinance has any substantive value based on the council’s decision to keep him from speaking past his three minutes.
Holman said he was surprised that when he showed up with his exhibits, the council had an expectation that he was not offering anything to the public hearing, which he said is the cause for him being cut off. Holman said he did not alert the city council prior to the public hearing about how much information he had in his presentation.
“No matter how much information we had, the expectation is you get three minutes to speak as an individual or six minutes as a group. We see people who make up a group as being entitled to three minutes as an individual, so they can yield (their minutes),” Holman said.
Discussion beyond the record
After the public hearing, Starr and Holman met up and had a private discussion with one another.
“I was just trying to give him some friendly advice,” Starr said.
Starr said that during their discussion, he had given Holman advice on how to approach a council in terms of influencing them more favorably and finer points of parliamentary procedure. Holman said Starr explained to him that Holman and his group could submit evidence, research and questions in writing, which Holman said the Webster University Alumni group already did after the Sept. 18 meeting.
Holman said he followed the guidelines the council suggested for formatting research. He said there was no indication the council considered any of what he had submitted.
Holman said he asked if he had submitted research, could he get written responses to his questions from the council. Holman said he was told no.
“That isn’t how this process works,” Starr said. “The council and the staff that are paid by the city have limited time and resources available to them, so the point of a public hearing is for the council to be educated, not necessarily every question every citizen might have.”
However, Starr mentioned he is available by phone if Holman would like to discuss his questions with Starr.
“I pointed out to him that if he wanted to call me, I would be happy to talk to him. He hasn’t ever reached out to me to ask me what my understanding of any part of that text amendment is. So, simple things, like if he wanted to see an underlined graph to show what the changes (to the ordinance) were, that is something, if he called me on Friday, I could have easily have provided him.”