Council Silence revisited

Have you checked out Gazette City Hall reporter Rick Smith’s new blog? If not, you should. For one thing, you’ll find this interesting post about Cedar Rapids City Council member Kris Gulick’s pointed take on The Gazette’s coverage of the council’s new public comment policy.

In case you missed it, council members have stopped responding to citizens who address them at public comment time during council meetings. Rick wrote about the change and I criticized the policy in a column last week. Columnist Linda Alexander and our editorial page also jumped on the council.

So on Wednesday night, Gulick, his voice quivering, according to Rick’s account, ripped the newspaper. Gulick’s ire was fired, in part, by the fact that he goes the extra mile and then some to make himself available to his constituents.

Good for him. Every member should follow his lead.

But there’s really no reason for Gulick to get mad.  This isn’t about him personally. It’s not about any of the council members. And it’s not about Carol Martin or any of the usual suspects whose perpetual protests prompted the council to remain silent. 

It’s about a public institution, with members and critics that will come and go. I think the policy sets a bad precedent for that institution.

It’s about the need for providing a forum for give and take between council members and citizens in public (and that’s the key word, public). And I think it’s one of the council’s most important roles.

I know it’s easier and less nerve-wracking to take people aside and talk to them in private. But I simply think it’s misguided to raise the importance of what’s comfortable while devaluing the importance of public engagement out in the open, even engagement that gets messy.

Yes, I understand some comment time critics get their facts wrong or treat you unfairly or say things that are disrespectful or ask questions you can’t immediately answer. But do their transgressions rise to a level that justifies muting and sanitizing the only public portion of a public meeting by a public body?

I think the answer is clearly no. I know the council disagrees. I respect that.

Not every member of the public that rises at comment time is a crank. But the council’s policy treats everyone like cranks.I know most politicians and office holders bristle at the notion of all being lumped in with public servants who committed misdeeds. But yet, too often, they also engage in lumping.

It also seems to me that the council is trying to have it both ways. They keep public comment time on the agenda as a signal that they care about the public’s concerns. Then they refuse to engage that public. It’s  window dressing on a bricked-in window.

In the decade that I covered the Iowa Legislature, I watched lawmakers stand up and answer whithering attacks during floor debate. Only once did I see a lawmaker refuse to stand and answer questions from another lawmaker during debate. It’s tough, and sometimes the attacks are misguided or unfair, but it’s part of the job. And like the council. most of these folks are not professional politicians.

You might say such debate is inefficient or counterproductive. I say it’s important for the public to see how they’re elected leaders perform under fire, without a net. It also helps our elected officials become better leaders.

I have no malice for the council and I’m not trying to spread propaganda. I just want its members to remember that when you serve the people in a democracy, you don’t always get to dictate the rules of engagement. The people run the show, and make the rules.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Council Silence revisited

  1. Martha Troxel

    Thank you for your comments about public comment at the city council meetings.
    Remember that city council members can be replaced by persons who understand that they work for us-the public!

  2. Robot

    The citizens have many ways to speak to there representatives. If I want to be heard I will be heard, it doesn’t have to be in a certain forum.

  3. Doug

    Sometimes I wonder if it’s the media types and black helicopter chasers who get most enraged about things like this.

    “Sunshine” laws take care of their thing, and if they don’t the media tell us about it. But, there’s a big difference between the sunshine of open meetings and the manufactured, higher standard that local media, in general, and the Gazette, in particular, are trying to foist upon all of us.

    How many meetings a month do our elected officals attend where people can have input? Dozens. Are camera nececssary at each of them? No. It’s shame that the Gazette is concentrating on this non-issue rather than others of more importance. It’s called making news instead of reporting it.

  4. bigone

    Ironic, it is the Ides of March tomorrow and death comes to masters of the universe and good policy alike.

  5. Robot

    Psalm 46:10
    Be still, and know that I am God:

  6. This Council is known for only caring for the Big Money Interests of the Downtown area. They don’t care about the rest of the citizens. It’ really sad, hopefully the next city election can correct this problem

  7. Steve

    I am absolutely amazed there is anyone who believes the council not answering to the public at the forum section of the meeting is a good thing. This is certainly not “sunshine” on legit questions the public has. Discourse between people fosters understanding, if someone has the facts wrong, then that needs to be addressed. If in the heat of the moment people get disrespectful and get a little excited, it likely is they feel like they haven’t been heard and turning up the volume is often the way people use to at least feel that the deafness of the system gets cleared up. No one says the council has to stand toe to toe with someone who is out of control. No one says if you don’t have an answer right away you can offer up “we will look into it, and if you can help us get a handle on the problem I think we can work it out” sort of response. When something can be answered immediately why not answer? What can it hurt? I do believe it was Harry Truman who said, ” If you can’t stand the heat, then get out of the kitchen!” This is part of the job, it comes with being part of the system that makes you a public employee. If you have nothing to contribute to the public comments no one says you need to voice anything, but making it a policy no one will answer the public is censorship of the people we elected to answer our requests for information in a public and very sunshiny way. This isn’t a fascist state, or at least it shouldn’t be.

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