Council, public need to meet in the middle on public speaking

(A version of this speech was made at the Open Forum in Longmont City Council Chambers 1/17/12)
Once again, and it’s far from the first time, there have been suggestions to limit Public Invited To Be Heard at Longmont City Council meetings.  I want to make it clear that I am not in favor of that.
In the past, under previous Mayors Julia Pirnack and Roger Lange the public’s time at the podium was shortened from 5 minutes to 3 minutes – I opposed that.  There was even some formula where the first 12 speakers got 5 minutes, but everyone else, up to a point, only got 3 – I opposed that.  Then limitations were instituted that had to do with the sign-up sheet, if you didn’t sign up you didn’t speak – I opposed that.  Then the second Public Invited to Be Heard at Study Sessions was done away with altogether – I also opposed that.  In fairness, Mayor Bryan Baum allowed people to speak who did not sign up on the list and usually had a second call at Study Sessions.

My objections to these limitations were all fairly public both here, in the paper, and online.  So it should come as no surprise where I come down on the latest flare-up about Public Invited To Be Heard – I’m not in favor of limiting it.

That’s not to say there are not some valid arguments on both sides of this issue, there are.  But the importance of citizens being heard by their representatives trumps most of the arguments – in my opinion anyway.

From the city council’s point of view I agree, these meetings often become 5+ hour marathons when it begins with 1+ hours of often repetitive public speakers.  But this was no secret prior to any of you applying for this position.  I recall asking some candidates if they were aware of what the position entails and if they were able to fulfill those responsibilities.  As they say, it is what it is, and this is what it is.

The other argument is the problem of presenters having to wait a long time to get their agenda item discussed.  This is indeed a problem, and I’ve seen people wait hours only to have their agenda item delayed until a future council meeting.  Not all of that is the public’s fault as council members themselves are often guilty of repeating themselves or going on for too long too often.  The infamous “paralysis by analysis”.  I don’t have a good resolution to this particular problem except forewarn anyone you invite to council that we have a very active and vocal populace.

But the public, or at least parts of it, have some culpability for this recurring problem of limiting public access at council meetings.  Why does this issue keep coming up?  The past examples of limitations were directly attributed to citizens, usually on one issue, repeating themselves and marching one person after another to the podium essentially making the same point – over and over.  In the past it’s been Walmart, LifeBridge, Union Reservoir, HeavenFest, the airport, and recently fracking.

This issue of limiting Public Invited also keeps coming up because people often need to be reminded that while free speech is a right, it has limitations, and it’s not something to be exploited or abused.  So I offer these observations and suggestions to public speakers:

  • Not everyone will agree with what you have to say.  That should be obvious, but lately I’ve seen some people get upset that city council members may not value their opinion.  Get over it.
  • No one, elected or not, must accept, watch, or consider whatever piece of information you give them.  To you it may seem like common sense that any logical person should accept as fact and that it’s information people NEED to see, to others it may seem like propaganda.
  • Having people repeat themselves over and over, regardless of the number of people doesn’t make their issue more true or right.  It just means a lot of people got organized.  If consensus was based on this we’d have what is called “mob rule”.
  • There are many outlets to be heard and to communicate with elected officials, they include:  phone calls, emails, Coffee with Council, the newspaper (including Open Forum letters, the TC Line, and the online comment section), blogging, radio (KRCN 1060AM Monday nights at 6pm where Longmont is the only topic), discussions with advisory boards and committees – and of course Public Invited To Be Heard at this podium.
  • It seems lately attacks on staff and council are on the rise, not a good tactic to win people over.  The city’s rules on this aren’t draconian or over-restrictive; they are just trying to maintain some decency and decorum.  If you feel the need to make a personal attack, the previously mentioned venues are better suited than at this podium.  There are times and places for that kind of activity, I know, I’ve had my moments – but not here.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask, but lately people are nudging right up against that line, and they know better.
  • While you can talk about green cheese on the moon if you like, or political situations that have nothing to do with Longmont, this podium is not your personal soapbox and council and the public would be better served discussing Longmont issues at Longmont City Council meetings.  That’s not an unreasonable limitation or request, it’s common courtesy.
  • Some speakers are guilty of feeling they must be heard on every single subject.  That they must “check in” or “weigh in” at this podium.  This is not necessary and can be done at one of the other many opportunities citizens have to communicate with council.

Most of these suggestions are common sense, and both council and the public should meet somewhere in the middle for a reasonable resolution to this issue.  If not, more rules could be on the way – and if the past is any indication, they only get more restrictive on the public.

Chris Rodriguez

About Chris Rodriguez

Chris is the editor/publisher of LightningRod Blog - as well as founder/editor of Wrongmont, Longmont Advocate, Vote!Longmont, Longmont Politics, the LightningRod Radio Network, as well as being the original Longmont Examiner. Chris is a writer and talker - whether it be blogs, podcasts, music, or public speaking. When he's not heard on Air Traffic radio, he can be heard on his podcasts or seen in the local paper causing trouble.
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