A few sour apples are spoiling City Council meetings for the many residents who wish to attend or tune in to see how the City conducts its business.
Citizen comment, the 45-minute period allotted – and sometimes extended – by City Council is designed to allow residents to weigh in on matters before the Council and urge the aldermen to consider certain aspect of the matters at hand.
Lately, though, the public microphone at the lectern in Council chambers seems to have become less a source of rational discourse and more one of vitriol, where a few exercise what they believe are their First Amendment rights to excoriate public officials with whose decisions they do not agree.
We believe this new tenor of citizen comment obstructs rather than promotes the business of the City. When comment to public officials devolves into personal attacks, the message becomes obscured if not obliterated.
The First Amendment guarantees, but qualifies, freedom of speech. It also mandates that citizens be able to petition their government. The City Council has allotted the citizen comment period for that purpose. That time, however, is a privilege extended by City Council; it is not mandated by the Constitution or by any state, federal or municipal law. Council could abolish it and be within its authority.
There are additional ways to advise a government of one’s view: letters to City Council members and City officials, letters to the editor of a local newspaper, picket signs, boycotts, hunger strikes and civil disobedience, to name a few.
We respect the right of any resident to disagree with any action taken or contemplated by City Council. As private citizens, and sometimes as public media, we sometimes disagree as well.
Degenerating into trash talk and baiting Council members into confrontation has no place in the serious business of addressing the needs of the community as a whole. This is not speaking truth to power; it is belittling the importance of speaking to our elected officials in a formal and civil manner. It is ruining Citizen Comment, what used to be a valuable and informative period at each Council meeting, for everyone.
We ask that those whose misuse of residents’ and Council’s time over the past several months to respect the process of government and thus change their tactics and their presentation. We are not asking them to change their minds.