Public Comment At Committee Meetings

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I think there is a misunderstanding about the whole ‘public comment’ vote near the end of last week’s Cit Council Meeting. There seems to be a perception that the issue is just one more personality conflict over some minor ‘procedural’ deal. It was not. This is a difference in philosophy so basic that we cannot even discuss it without someone getting personally offended.

We have Councilmember Committee Meetings that are defined as public meetings under the state Open Public Meetings Act. However, these meetings, are neither ‘public’ or ‘committee’ meetings as most of you expect. And I say that because, if you watch the discussion, the City Manager and my colleagues repeatedly feel the need to do an explainer. They obviously feel like if the public understands the purpose, then they will understand that there is no need for public comment or any other reforms to Committee Meetings.

So you have to decide whether this is some ginned-up non-issue or whether the proposal was attempting to address a real problem.

Some background: Our Committee meetings are run by the administration, not by Council. The administration does not merely execute policy, it makes almost all policy. The administration schedules the meetings. They set the agenda for meetings. They cancel meetings if they don’t consider them necessary. A committee meeting consists of a staff presentation, followed by a few questions. That’s it. The vast majority of the time, the main reason for CMs to show up is because we are legally required to do so. The administration prefers this system and so do my colleagues for reasons they describe on the video so I’ll let them speak for themselves..

I disagree with this system. The law says that Councilmembers have two basic jobs: legislation and oversight. For the most part we do neither of those things at Committee Meetings. And I think we should.

For years I have watched many other governments work. And my experience tells me that when committees are driven by electeds and fully engaged with the public, this leads to better services for you, the taxpayer. I’m not talking about some abstract ideal of ‘democracy’. It’s about practical results: roads and public safety and permits and economic development, etc.

Most of you likely feel intuitively some kind of way about this, but honestly, very few of you can decide who is right based on evidence. We have no newspaper and almost none of you get to see how our government works—let alone how governments work in other places. It’s very difficult for you to fairly evaluate how well we’re doing compared with other places. Frankly, you often just have to take us at our word.

My interest in public comment and recording meetings and all the other ‘transparency’ jazz I go on about is somewhat self-serving: I believe that if more of you take the time to see how things actually work, you’ll agree with me and help our government (including our Committees) work more as you expect them. And again, I want to stress that a better process leads to better practical results for you: from public safety to roads to economic development.

My colleagues obviously disagree. They believe that the current system is not merely good, but best in class and that my complaints are not only without merit, but are tactics to make them and our City look bad. That has never been true.

It’s kinda hard to bridge such a wide gulf of trust. So I hope more of you make the effort to attend all our meetings and judge for yourself. I know it’s more challenging than it should be and I applaud those who get engaged.