Friday, July 18, 2008

Public Comment at City Council Meetings

Here is a summary, by Marilyn Wellons, of last evening's hearing held by the City of Cambridge's Ordinance Committee to review the Council's rules on public comment:

Vice Mayor Murphy and Councillor Maher were co-chairs.

Mayor Simmons began by explaining her Policy Order about public comment that precipitated the hearing. It's useful to review policies like these from time to time.

Councillor Toomey and others, notably Councillors Murphy and Maher, were very keen on a meeting's efficiency, on the theory that working people need to get home in good time, having had their say at a predictable hour, rather than as the topics come up on the agenda.Councillor Toomey: the status quo works much better than its predecessors. The [tv-viewing] public at home wants to see a well-run Council meeting.

Councillor Maher: predictability and efficiency are paramount. People should be able to speak in a reasonable amount of time. Lots happens in the Council's committee meetings and this is an opportune, alternative time for public comment.

Mayor Simmons agreed.

Several praised Mayor Simmons for running the meetings well. [Councillor Reeves was not in attendance.]

Councillor Davis was, like Nixon, concerned with the people who don't show up and don't speak (silent majority?). She wants people to feel welcome, and longer public comment will further deter those who don't already come. They don't want to spend hours at a Council meeting.

Councillor Kelley says the status quo sort of works. Meetings should start on time at 5:30 or they should change the start time to when Councillors can be there. He wants people to be able to comment on items not on the Council or Manager's agenda. Councillors should make themselves available outside of meetings, read all e-mails, but that's very hard. Consequently public comment at Council meetings is important.

Vice Mayor Murphy and others wonder if giving people a choice of speaking at the beginning of the meeting or at another point after the Manager's Agenda would be useful.

Beyond the people who are always saying "something's rotten in Denmark," there are people with expertise about trash collection or building codes, for example, who have useful things to say.

At 3-4 hearings a year, reviewing departments--Public Works was his example--there could be "valuable exchange of information."

In public comment, Bill Cunningham, speaking personally, noted the history of shrinking public comment at Council meetings. TV broadcast pushes people to compact their comments. Earlier rules allowed the public "real participation," to speak to items as they came up. Current rules separate public comment from the Council's business and put it together with cultural presentations, for a kind of "circus" before the Council gets down to work.

Elie Yarden noted the effort it takes for many people to come to meetings. For example, there was an air quality alert yesterday, but he decided to come to the hearing anyway. He reminded the Council of groups of neighbors in public comment who educated the Council about issues like the Polaroid site. I was glad to hear the Mayor's explanation of her Order, hoped public comment would be expanded. I had thought the move was to restrict it further, given shrinking public involvement and the Council's move to delegate contentious items to the appointed boards since 1980. Councillors compete for the job, are paid a nice salary, have paid assistants, fine offices, and they give the impression listening to the public at Council meetings interferes with business. Real democracy can mean messy meetings with public comment that takes time.

Steve Kaiser criticized speakers who hadn't done their homework, didn't know what they were talking about.

Mayor Simmons liked that. It's difficult to listen to speakers who aren't organized, she said, but then "we do that ourselves."

Robert Winters seconded Kaiser's criticism. He thought segregating public comment was an unintended consequence of the 1999 rule change. It would be useful to allow the public to speak to an agenda item when it comes up.

Councillor Seidel said he found public comment the most interesting part of the meetings. Bless his heart, he said not everyone needs to be an expert. Alone among the Councillors, he said he appreciates it if people come with something on their mind, that they take the time to come. [Mind you, this is his first term.]

Councillor Seidel liked the possibility of public comment after the Manager's agenda. He thinks that's a "natural place" for it and it would be helpful for "us to have a break in the meeting" at that point. "People here tonight should know we listen."

After the meeting broke up and I'd already left the chamber, I remembered Councillor Seidel's amazing comments. I went back in to thank him. He was alone at his desk, the others were schmoozing. I thanked him, said he was the only one who said such things, important things--which he then reaffirmed.

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