Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Reform Public Comment at Government Meetings. Now.

Public comment is like a kabuki dance, unless you're a developer or some rich guy. Disgraceful. Wicked good column:

Public Occurrences: One-way input or two-way dialogue?
Posted: August 15, 2016 - 12:00am | Updated: August 15, 2016 - 12:10pm

Syndicated Columnist
In view of the pending Aug. 30 primary election and this twice-monthly editorial column focused on local politics, it’s no surprise that I’ve been asked if I am a member of The Record’s editorial board.

Do I have a voice or vote with regard to which candidates or ballot measures this newspaper should support? The answers are no and no.

Neither the Opinion Page Editor nor Executive Editor have ever asked for my opinion on any ballot measure or candidate, and I do not expect to be asked. Nor will I be using this space to offer my personal recommendations. I will, however, be paying close attention to all races on my ballot.

When it comes to the St. Augustine City Commission, I will be looking for candidates truly committed to open, two-way conversations with citizens at public meetings. The commission accepts public input because the law requires it does so, but there’s a huge difference between one-way input and a two-way dialogue.

The Aug. 8 commission meeting was an example of public servants failing to have a two-way dialogue with interested citizens. At that meeting, several residents went to the microphone during the public comment period to provide commissioners with input regarding the city’s plan to deal with cut-through traffic at Nelmar Terrace.

But because of the commission’s regressive policy of avoiding direct interaction with citizens at public meetings unless required to do so by state law, commissioners were unable to comment on points raised by concerned citizens, or answer any questions.

To the commission’s credit, they at least agreed to move the Nelmar Terrace item up on the agenda so that those who came to speak about the topic at the beginning of the meeting didn’t have to wait a couple of hours to find out what the decision-makers were going to do.

That was a step in the right direction, but far short of an actual dialogue with the public.

Citizens deserve better, and the commission has in its discretionary power the ability to create a more friendly approach for dealing with the public.

How hard would it be for the city commission to adopt the following policy for all agenda items?

■ Mayor reads posted agenda item for the benefit of the audience — both at City Hall and those at home watching on television.

■ Staff provides commissioners with background information.

■ Commissioners ask questions of staff based on packet information and staff’s presentation.

■ Public is then asked for its input and allowed to go to the microphone for three minutes without filling out speaker cards. (They are adults, capable of introducing themselves).

■ Commissioners and staff interact with the public, answering their questions.

■ Public input ends and the conversation returns to commission table for possible action.

Seems pretty simple to me, and it’s certainly not a radical policy. In fact, it’s the policy of many cities and counties.

Is the commission required by Florida law to follow my suggestion? No. Except for certain posted public hearings, they are able to meet minimum state requirements by merely listening to public comments at the beginning of the meeting, even if the topic commented on by citizens isn’t actually addressed for another two or three hours.

To my way of thinking, that’s not a sincere effort to involve citizens in the process. Citizens deserve a better policy and the commission can provide it — if they are willing.

Sitting mute at the commission table while a dozen or more citizens go to the microphone to offer their input is not a dialogue. It’s not a conversation.

I remain perplexed and disappointed by the city commission’s apparent unwillingness to allow two-way conversations with the public except when required to do so by law for posted public hearings. What is the problem?

I hope at least one candidate in each of the three city commission races this year will support two-way conversations on all agenda items rather than one-way input.

And then will I know who to vote for.

Cottrell can be contacted at cottrell.sf@gmail.com

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