Gulfport Council changes cause controversy

By Elise Roberts - bio | email

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - The new Gulfport City Council and administration held its first public meeting Tuesday. The three hour forum addressed several issues concerning the city, but the most controversial topic was a proposal to change the way citizens comment at council meetings.

The ordinance calls for moving what is now the citizen's hearing part of the council meetings to a monthly meeting held in different wards. The measure has some residents outraged.

In a nutshell, the proposal removes the citizen hearing from council meetings. The public can still fill out a card and they can still speak to the council, but only on policy issues that are already a part of the agenda.

Proponents say it will make for more structured council meetings. However, some residents believe it's a slap in the face to the people who put the council members in office.

"We are the Gulfport and we thought we needed you to help us," said Gulfport resident Mary Spinks-Thigpen.

"The people still need to have the right to come here and express the opinion to all seven of you so that you understand where they're coming from and you can make your decision," said Lorraine Santo.

A new measure will change the citizens forum portion of council meetings.

Under the proposal, residents won't have an open forum to talk about whatever issues they choose. Instead, they will be allowed to speak on policy issues that are already on the agenda.

"This is an ordinance that's going to let us get to the business and not take away from the people," said ward five councilman Ricky Dombrowski.

Some residents feel the measure infringes on their rights and they don't like it.

"I cannot understand to save me why you would take a position that people vote you in for, and you don't want to hear from them," said Thigpen. "I don't get that."

Ward five Councilman Ricky Dombrowski is leading the effort to change the meeting structure. It's a proposal similar to one enacted the last time he served on the council.

"It lasted several months and then it was moved back to the front of the meeting because it didn't work," said former Ward seven Councilwoman Barbara Nalley.

Dombrowski tried to defend his rationale for the proposal, but he may have caused more harm than good.

"It's not getting you out the door," said Dombrowski. "It's not that we don't want to hear from you. The thing is we want to hear from the people are paying lawyers. These people are paying lawyers like $200 an hour and they are just sitting around waiting."

The statement outraged many people attending the meeting.

Dombrowski and other council members quickly clarified the statement by saying that often times the meetings get side-tracked by those who have personal agendas or other issues that can't be addressed in the council format.

"It was not the intent to take away the people's voice in anyway whatsoever," said Ward seven Councilwoman Cara Pucheu.

Even though some residents don't like it, a majority of the council did. And with a four-three vote, the measure passed.

R. Lee Flowers and Ricky Dombrowski voted in favor of the change along with Councilman Rusty Walker and Councilwoman Cara Pucheu.

Council member Rusty Walker insists that the measure will still allow residents to be heard inside and outside of the council meetings.

The monthly meetings will address concerns. Under the new ordinance, all council members will attend the community meetings as well as the mayor and his administration.

It will take 30 days for the new changes to go into effect.

©2009 WLOX. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.