STOW — Residents will have less time to speak during the regular council meeting but more time during committee meetings.

At the Jan. 9 City Council meeting, the audience participation during the regular meeting was reduced from a 3 minute time limit to a 2 minute time limit by Council President Sindi Harrison.

"The idea was not to reduce public time but to encourage more discussion and participation by residents at our committee meetings," Harrison said. "In sitting on council last year, I saw how public participation in the committee meetings and discussions were much more productive than comments that occurred at council."

The requirement for public comment under the code in Stow is that residents be allowed a "reasonable time" to speak and the chair running the meeting has the ability to determine what they feel is reasonable, she said.

"I believe that any change made has to be given time to be evaluated and for the few residents that reached out to me on the issue I agreed it would be reviewed at the three-month and six-month mark to see if it is accomplishing the goal of more interactive participation in the committee meetings," she said.

Harrison said the president determines how long residents speak during the regular council meeting and chairs determine how long residents speak during the committee meetings. She plans to leave the time limit for public comments at 2 minutes for awhile and see what happens.

"Some people are upset about it," Harrison said. "Change is hard. We can’t say it’s good or bad until we see how it works."

The goal is to create more discussion during committee meetings, Harrison said. Public hearings begin at 5:30 p.m. and committee meetings usually begin at 6 p.m. The regular council meeting begins at 7 p.m. 

At committee meetings, which are more informal, there is discussion and questions between those in the audience and council members and administration, she said. With more participation in the committee meetings, residents actually end up with more time to address council members and the ability to be involved in discussions on the issues the committees are working on. Residents can speak at any of the committees and more than one. If they just make a statement, it could be limited to 3 minutes, but if they have a discussion with council, there isn’t a time limit.

She said at the Jan. 23 meeting there was active participation and discussion several audience members on multiple topics, including the public comment time limit, the condition of the parks, and on the proposed school bus legislation.

"We had good information come out of those discussions," Harrison said. "It’s important people hear the discussion among council during committee meetings."

Another example was the Summa medical center built on Fishcreek Road near Compton Court with input from Summa representatives, residents and city administration. Residents with small children had concerns about a retention pond and were able to come to a compromise with a fence.

The change to 2 minutes went into effect at the Jan. 23 meeting and several residents complained. One resident noted other councils allow residents to speak 3 to 5 minutes. She said council should be for Stow residents and listen to them. She added that reducing comments to 2 minutes reduces her freedom of speech.

Summit County Council Representative Gloria Rodgers said it was irresponsible to reduce the time to 2 minutes.

"Make time," Rodgers said. "Reducing the time residents have to talk to you is a mistake."

Another resident said council should leave the time at 3 minutes and bring back transparency to council.

Gannett reporter Laura Freeman can be reached at 330-541-9434 or lfreeman@recordpub.com.