During the last couple of City Council meetings there has been a plea by council members for public input. But do elected officials really want to hear from us?
There are different policies concerning this issue. The Board of Supervisors and the City of Santa Maria limit speakers to three minutes each at the discretion of the chairperson, and only allow public comment for a total of 15 minutes.
Our City Council has a more liberal policy, allowing five minutes per speaker and no total time limit. I have observed the council at work for many years and have served on three commissions, and lengthy public input is usually limited to high-interest items, sometimes taking well over an hour with many speakers saying the same thing.
Of course, if each speaker were allowed an unlimited time to speak, they could filibuster the meeting and nothing would get done, so a reasonable time limit is important to the orderly flow of business.
But project proponents and/or city staff are allowed an unlimited time to present their point of view.
I have spoken before the council on several occasions and it is difficult to make a coherent point on complex issues in five minutes. On many occasions it felt like I was speaking into a dark cave judging by the body language of the council. And some speakers have been publicly admonished when they were through speaking.
How can you acquire public knowledge on an issue that is before the council? An agenda is posted on the city Web site, usually late on the Friday prior to the council meeting, however the council often gets last-minute supplemental information or has one-on-one background discussions with the staff that the public isn’t privy to.
So, providing meaningful input without all of the information presents a serious challenge.
There are two types of council meetings: workshops to iron out issues and form plans in a less formal forum, and regular sessions where the public’s business is decided. Recently, one speaker said the council could get better public input if it allowed some give-and-take or an exchange of ideas during the workshops.
During a recent daylong workshop, public comment was limited to five minutes at the beginning, so with no further opportunity to discuss issues, the public left. If public input is really a goal of the council, then something needs to change to encourage the public to engage in the debate.
A good example of needed change is to acknowledge the work of the 12 appointed commissions and boards that have regular meetings and accept public comment. Maybe the council could seek their participation and comments when an issue impacts their commission.
These commissioners have studied the issues that come before them and should be relied upon when it comes time to make a decision. But, in the past, the city attorney has prohibited commissioners from speaking to the council on matters that have moved to the council agenda.
A council workshop in January will consider performance standards for the city administrator. While not specifically directed at the current city administrator, it has been needed for a long time. This workshop would be an opportunity request development of a policy that would allow a more open public discourse and demonstrate that the council is willing to open the window for a more meaningful dialog during the public comment period.
But do our elected representatives really want to hear from the public? There is the nagging issue of political retribution if you happen to disagree with the elected body. It is not uncommon at all levels of government to attempt to silence citizens who voice concerns by removing them from appointed positions and/or publicly chastising them for exercising their right to free speech.
If public input is really desired, then there needs to be a cultural shift that invites an interactive discussion of ideas with the public, not a continuing one-sided oratory from the dais.
Ron Fink is a longtime Lompoc resident and a community activist.