What’s Wrong With This Picture?
Seen above, in archive photos are: Councillor Don Harris, left, when he first deferred his rules amendment on March 5; Council President Deborah O’Malley, center; and Sally Mayer, right. In the picture, citizen Mayer is seen exercising her right to give public comment before the May 1, 2000, city council meeting, a couple of years before running for office.
At Monday’s session, Councillor Don Harris again deferred his rules amendment. The amendment will move general public comments from the seventh item to the final item on the council’s meeting agendas.
“Sometimes people get confused about the purpose of public comments at city council,” Council President Deborah O’Malley said. “The purpose of city council is to do the work of city council.”
Council Vice President Sally Mayer and former Councillor Tina Cummins, during the last term of the council, successfully changed the rules, placing a cap on the length of meetings. Mayer whined about having to stay up late to do the work of the city. She wanted to stop by 10 p.m., but agreed to adjourn by 10:30. It now takes a vote to suspend the rules to go beyond 10:30.
Mayer joins Harris in wanting to have the general public comments moved on the agenda to the last item. She argues that she doesn’t think the state and federal legislative bodies take public comments, though she has never been to Washington. She’s correct; they don’t, not in the way city council does.
So what’s wrong with this picture?
This young citizen, and her even younger sister, spoke at the Oct. 4, 1999, City Council meeting to support the school bus seat belt veto override. It didn’t help; school buses still don’t have seat belts.
President O’Malley could not be more right, nor more profoundly wrong in her statement, “sometimes people get confused about the purpose of public comments at city council.” The people who seem most confused are the City councillors wishing to adopt this rule change.
The purpose of the city council is to do the work of city. The work of the city is the work of the people. The peoples’ concerns should be paramount to the writing of legislation and should be part of the process. Before, not afterwards!
O’Malley suggested that maybe there should be more town hall meetings like the one held a couple of weeks ago on the issue of automated enforcement. The red light cameras have been in operation for two years and it is only now, after the citizenry became outraged that a town hall meeting was held.
I felt very lonely over the years when I continually spoke out against one sort of scheme or another involving automated enforcement, starting about a decade ago with photo-radar. Chief of Police Ray Schultz, who was then a Lieutenant, presented the project. The 1996 council had the wisdom to kill the program.
Even in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, at act 3, scene 1, just shortly before “Et tu Brute!” citizens and soothsayers alike approached with petitions, making pleas, and offering words of advice, warning Caesar and senators while on their way up the steps of the Roman capitol.
Shakespeare got it right! Petition is an ancient concept dating back to the earliest of recorded times, where the governed have asked those who govern for relief.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The city charter and ordinances call for citizen participation.
Harris’ amendment smacks of arrogance; of knowing better what the citizen wants and needs are. Moving public comments to the end of the meeting is a means of avoidance.
Governing bodies use a technique that I have particularly noticed has been utilized by organized labor unions and political parties. It is the habit of taking the most controversial items and placing them at the end of the agenda to wear out the constituency. It is not beyond possibility that a meeting might well drag to 10:30 and adjournment before public comments can be heard. Another favored trick of former presiding officers of this council is to require citizens wishing to speak to sign up, and do so before the meeting begins.
There are other governmental entities that recognize the value of public input and request comments, allowing those interested to queue up behind the podium and take their turn. It’s that simple!
Harris has also suggested limiting what citizens may address in their moments before council. He mentioned to the Journal, in particular, a couple that had approached the council to speak about what they perceived was a lack of fair treatment in a child custody case in state district court. On its face, it might seem that the topic is something in which the council has neither interest nor jurisdiction. However, there is a good chance that the police or the Family and Community Services Department would have a role in such cases.
More importantly, the general public comments section allows citizens a chance to bring their concerns onto the public square, clearly and with a minimum of confusion.
In a representative form of government, the first obligation of representatives is to fulfill the wishes and needs of their constituency. In order to do that, the representatives must be informed. Listening would help; paying attention might also be a good starting point. Being fully informed is crucial to good governmental decision-making.
It’s not often that young citizens speak before the council and I hate using a cheap shot line that Mayor Martin Chávez has used to raise the emotional level. What the heck! If 10:30 is past Mayer’s bedtime; then according to Chávez, “What do we tell the children?” They also want to say their peace or "piece."