Northfield, News

Northfield trustees support changes to public comment, such as codifying 3-minute time limit

Board also will move public comment to early in meeting

Following a year filled with negative attention, residents demanding action and transparency, and the reassignment of the longtime village manager, the Northfield Board of Trustees is making changes to enable a calmer and more productive 2024.

Some of those changes were included in discussions at the board’s first public meetings of the year, held on Tuesday, Jan. 16, with much of the discussion occurring during the board’s committee of the whole meeting.

Just prior to opening discussions during both meetings, Trustee Tracey Mendrek read a prepared statement in which she reviewed a special meeting of the board on Dec. 18, 2023, when the board underwent training from the Illinois Municipal League during closed session.

While Mendrek said most of what was discussed at that meeting is confidential, she called it “a frank, honest and constructive discussion among the seven of us.”

“What we were trying to do as a group (was) sort of identify how we can work better together, listening to the public’s reaction to some of the things we’ve done over the last several months,” she said. “It is a confidential procedure that we went through, but I think you will see things moving forward where we have taken our own recommendations as well as recommendations from the public to try to do better and present a more united front and get the important work of the Village done.”

Most of the changes the board discussed on Tuesday related to public comment.

Interim Village Manager Tim Frenzer made three suggested recommendations to changes in the way public comments are received at Village Board meetings. All of the suggestions were positively received by trustees.

“If you don’t establish a time limit by rule, you can’t just come up with one at a meeting. It would be improper to have no time limit in your code and then all of a sudden, at the meeting, the chair tries to impose a time limit.”
Tim Frenzer, interim village manager for Northfield

The biggest change, which would require a vote from the board, would be limiting public comments to three minutes per individual at each meeting.

Frenzer said Northfield’s current rules do not have a limit on public comment, which means that if somebody makes a lengthy statement, they cannot be cut off and have to finish their statement.

“If you don’t establish a time limit by rule, you can’t just come up with one at a meeting,” he said. “It would be improper to have no time limit in your code and then all of a sudden, at the meeting, the chair tries to impose a time limit.”

Frenzer added that Northfield is the only nearby community that does not have a limit on the time allotted for public comment. According to a document in the board packet, every other community in New Trier Township limits a speaker to three minutes per comment, in addition to Evanston, Glenview and Northbrook.

“Most people, once it gets past three or four minutes, are repeating themselves or digressing or not getting to the point,” he said.

Without a time limit, Frenzer said “someone could come in and, in effect, filibuster the entire meeting by simply not yielding the vote.”

With nobody objecting to the proposed changes, Village President Greg Lungmus said the amendment to the village code will be on the board’s February agenda.

Another recommendation was to move public comment to the beginning of the meeting.

Historically, Northfield’s public comment period would begin after the action items and just prior to staff reports, putting public comment in the back half of the meeting.

Although, the village president does typically ask for additional public comments on measures prior to the board’s vote.

Frenzer said moving public comment to the beginning of the meeting allows the village president to explain the rules and procedures for addressing the board, and that it also encourages public participation in meetings.

“I think that is a better message than waiting until the end of the meeting and communicates the value the board places on receiving that input,” he said. “Putting it at the end of the meeting kind of, to my mind, sends the opposite message.”

Early public comment also, Frenzer said, gives people who just want to make a brief statement the opportunity to speak and leave instead of waiting.

Frenzer also recommended a “welcome packet,” which would explain the guidelines for public comment, lay out the structure of the meeting, explain who the officials are at the table, and define terms such as “consent agenda” and “action item.”

Lungmus said both suggestions be in effect by the board’s next meeting.

Additionally, trustees agreed to sign a civility pledge, a suggestion by the Illinois Municipal League. Frenzer referred to it as “a statement of values or aspirations” for elected officials, staff and others at board meetings.

The pledge will also be on the February agenda.

“I recommend that we (adopt it),” Lungmus said. “I like it.”

Details on former village manager’s new role

Following months of public comments criticizing former village manager Stacy Sigman and her new role as executive director of special projects, Frenzer took time on Tuesday to explain what she does and why her role is important.

Sigman, who was Northfield’s village manager for more than 20 years, and members of the Village Board sparred last year with allegations sent both ways. She and the Village reached an agreement in July that kept her on staff as the executive director of special projects. Since Sigman’s reassignment, some residents have questioned her role with the Village.

Frenzer said the decision to keep Sigman on has “substantially benefited the Village by allowing us to function fully with a part-time interim village manager in order to reduce … costs and have the benefit of considerable institutional knowledge and expertise to complete important projects on time while the recruitment of a new village manager proceeds.”

He added that he is Sigman’s sole supervisor and that the Village Board has no interaction with her.

Much of Sigman’s time reportedly has been spent working remotely and that she has only returned to Northfield one time, with Frenzer also asking her to come in while she was back in town for personal matters to complete some tasks.

Additionally, the only travel expenses she has incurred are a flight to Chicago and a hotel room, which totaled approximately $1,200, according to Frenzer, who added that he provided her a vehicle so she would not have to rent one herself.

Sigman was initially assigned 18 special projects, Frenzer said, a third of which have been completed. Those still in progress include the budgeting process and upcoming road projects such as the second phase of Happ Road improvements.

Frenzer said that once Sigman’s tasks are completed, they are handed off to other Village staff.

“My personal experience with this arrangement has been very positive,” he said. “And it has made it possible for me to perform the work for the Village in the way that was anticipated when the Village hired me.” 

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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