Monday, March 14, 2011

Decorum Issue on City Commission Agenda - 3/15

Click title for link to back-up information on the item.  The memo is from Pam Lopez, City Clerk and she gathered the Rules of Decorum that are used by Durham, North Carolina.  The proposed Lake Worth policy is crafted from that example.  As I read this proposal, nothing is too objectionable.  I think that much of what is desired in terms of behavior could be taken care of by a strong personality chairing the meeting.  But I guess the city needs some sort of "policy" as a bureaucratic response to the perceived problem.

It's interesting to note that the example used as a model is from a university community.  Durham is the home of Duke - home of the perennial college basketball powerhouse the Duke Blue Devils.  I happened to be raised in a university community and even worked for the municipality that is the home of Michigan State University - East Lansing.  One of the great contrasts that I find between living in essentially a non-university community in Florida and the one that I am familiar with is the desire for information and general intellectual curiosity.

In East Lansing, back in the mid-1980s, there was no time limit to individual public comments made by the citizenry at public meetings.  People could go on for 10, 15, 30 or more minutes in order to get their point across in all of its facets.  I am sure many of those that got up to speak at those meetings were professor-types that were used to speaking often to a group to get their ideas out - or to educate.  One of the unique things that the Planning Department did when making presentations to the City Council, after a recommendation was made at the Planning Board, was a complete summary of ALL the issues raised during the public meetings preceding the Council meeting and the detailed reaction/recommendation from the Planning Board - including the basis for the majority opinion and minority opinion, if it was a split decision.  The focus was on getting the facts out so that no stone was left unturned.  All issues were aired and dealt with - one way or the other and ended up being reflected in the final action.  In short, public comment and the recommendation from advisory boards was respected, debate was encouraged on the topic and I think that better decisions were made because of it.

Even with the limitless time given public comment, meetings were not inordinately long.  It wasn't like there weren't contentious issues being dealt with at the time either.

Granted, we don't live in an academic environment, but more respect for the information gleaned from public comments and recommendations needs to be demonstrated by the administration and City Commission in Lake Worth.  If people thought that their voice really mattered, you would have less frustration taking the form of anger and other bad behaviors that create what the City Commission thinks is a need for this type of ordinance.

There are two parts of the Durham example that are conspicuous due to their absence in the version proposed for Lake Worth.  Check these portions out:
Number 5 deals with the encouragement of citizens to prepare remarks in advance for SUBMISSION to the public record - along with additional material if necessary.  At the last City Commission meeting, the one that involved the takeover attempt of the CRA function, I had a prepared statement from someone that, due to health reasons, could not attend that particular night.  I asked the City Clerk if I could read this and she said that yes I could, but it would eat into my two minutes.  Well, I had my own two minutes worth of things to say so I wouldn't be able to do that.  You have to be present to make your comments and can't give "phantom time" of someone who is not there to a spokesperson.  So, instead of speaking them, I gave them to her and told her to "make them part of the record."  I got a wide-eyed look and I realized that it would be likely that those comments would never see the light of day, or the back of a Commissioner's retina.  Now the minutes don't even include comments from the public - if anything, it consists of a list of people that spoke on an issue.  In order to hear them, you need to access the city's website or get a CD of the meeting.  Both create barriers to access information.

I think if we had better way to memorialize information given by the public and really have it be part of the "public record," we would be on our way to a more inclusive representative democracy.  But that seems to be wishful thinking around here.

Item 6 refers to the time needed to deliver public comment and a signal being made that of your time left: at one minute left and then again at 30 seconds.  I don't know why the city can't have a digital clock - like other municipalities have - that counts down time for each speaker and changes colors as time runs out.  Some even have the capability of beeping.  Why this technology is avoided here is unknown.  When I was chair of the Planning and Zoning Board, I would use my watch.  But that takes a bit of trust on behalf of the public and having it in front of God and the whole wide world would be a better way to control a time limit on speaking.

And, speaking of the amount of time alloted to speaking, Durham uses a 5 minute limit.  I truly believe that the current 2 minutes that we allocate per speaker is too short.  This was changed from 3 minutes from before and that seems to be the standard length allowed at the County and other local municipalities.  I would prefer 5 minutes, but I doubt that will happen.  Can we change back to 3 minutes when we adopt this change?