Friday, March 15, 2013

City Council Public Testimony

I can remember sitting in the Commission and/or Council chambers until the wee hours of the morning because some hot button issue brought out a myriad of citizens, and sometimes employees, who wanted a chance to speak on the issue before the elected body passed an ordinance or resolution.

The City Council is grappling with that very issue as they try to craft an ordinance to stop the irritating public. Councilor Entenman states, “Things are emotional for people, and when they’re upset, they want to say it. And a lot of times, it becomes a lot of redundancy; they’re saying the same thing, but it’s coming from a different mouth, which is OK,” Entenman said. “However, you do need to have some controls, because you could go on, filibuster-type, for days.” Hmmm, being referred to as a "mouth" instead of a "person" is an interesting way to describe citizens testifying before the council. Referring to past examples of public testimony as filibuster-type exaggerates the issue.

The quality of life in our city is governed by ordinances and resolutions. When these laws are created, amended or deleted, the impact can affect citizens for better or worse. How does the city council judge the merits or importance of public policy changes unless they hear public testimony? If you are Councilor Karsky you might just have your mind already made up before you ever get to the council meeting as I heard he stated at a Council working session this week. So, no wonder they are interested in minimizing public testimony - such a waste of their time.

By the very city ordinances, public hearings are a requirement. It can be mind numbing listening to the same rhetoric over and over again, no doubt about it. But isn't that the job of the elected officials and isn't it the citizen's right to speak out? After all, it is a public hearing.

The purpose of public hearings is to give equal opportunity for everyone to speak for or against the proposed changes. When you start restricting the voice of the people, you start messing with the public's right to be heard, no matter how painful that may be to the city council.

There is already a five minute rule on individual public testimony although there is no limit on how long the public testimony, either for or against, can go on. Maybe the five minute rule is too long. Shorten it to 3 minutes per person. After an hour of testimony per pro and con group, the mayor could then say unless someone has something new to add to the public discussion, the public hearing will come to an end and the matter rests with the City Council. There is discretion today to manage those meetings, it just takes sound leadership and good judgment.

It would be nice if every citizen was a public speaker and came to the podium prepared to present their testimony in a succinct and professional manner. It would be nice if there was an organized effort on a single issue and people were chosen to be spokespersons in order to minimize repeating testimony. But that is a perfect world and public policy decisions are not always made in a perfect world.

To put a strict limit in ordinance stifles public input. All that does is make city council meetings more palatable to the elected officials while disallowing the public from providing input in order to influence council decisions or make their views known before a vote is taken.

It is a slippery slope and in the end, it just looks like the city council is trying to stifle the public's equal opportunity to speak on an issue that affects their quality of life. The council needs to remember that this is not about them, but about the public's ability to communicate with them at a public hearing required by city ordinance every time an official action is taken.

They are going to discuss it again at their April 10th Working Session. Let's hope cooler heads prevail and the Council gets back to more substantive issues that affect the community and quality of life issues instead of what affects them personally.

1 comment:

  1. The costitution says that we are to have government for the people by the people. That would necessarily include the public giving their opinions. I think they are trying to find the most practical way to do that.
    The only times they have had any problem is when there is a problem which involves a lot of people in a real way and urgent action is needed. Ex. when two hundred people had flooded basements because the city decided to flush the river when we had an eight inch rain and the flushing the river blocked the outlets for the storm sewers.
    It might be prudent to just call a special meeting just for a big event like that rather than try to fit it into a regular city cousel meeting.