Theresa Stehly, chairwoman of Citizens for Snow Gates, and her army of supporters were upset last month when the City Council limited public input on the snow gate election agenda item to 20 minutes. There were a lot of people attending the meeting who wanted to publicly state their support of establishing an election date on the issue.
Public input is important but you have to ask the question, when does it become redundant and no longer provides meaningful information? After 20 minutes? After one hour? After two hours? How many people does it take to hear the same thing? It seems to me the key to public input at a council meeting is meaningful input. Two hours of listening to the same talking points over and over is not meaningful input just because it's a different person each time. All it does, most of the time, is feed the egos of those who want the limelight and take delight in calling elected officials on the carpet on TV.
There are others way for the public to provide input and give their voice on an issue. Write the mayor and your council representative a letter. Send them an e-mail. Write a letter to the editor of the local paper. Submit a statement with signatures of support at the council meeting the night the item is on the council agenda, but select key people to speak on the issue.
Twenty minutes was not enough time for a controversial issue like the snow gate election. An hour of public input would surely have been plenty of time. The city council has many items on their weekly council agenda. The council meeting is a business meeting and it is certainly appropriate to establish guidelines and rules regarding the conduct of business. The sticky question is how long must this elected body sit through repetitive public input that offers no new information on a controversial issue, just different bodies.
The pro side and the con side of every issue can say that they deserve to be heard and should not have their public testimony limited in any way. But really, is that how to run an official meeting? If Stehly had known beforehand that there was going to be a time limit, she could have organized her army of supporters and very strategically picked her strongest voices to speak that night. That's the way it should be done. She didn't get the opportunity, because the rule isn't a defined rule and is currently used at the discretion of the council leadership.
I think it's a good idea to establish rules regarding public input and publish the rules. That way, no one can cry foul and the council won't look so arbitrary in their action. When is talk cheap? When it provides no new facts or information and is just repetitive rhetoric in a different set of clothes. That's why a rule such as what will be studied by the council is in the right direction.