I witnessed something amazing recently. Citizens in a community presented a problem to a city council during a council meeting – and the council and city manager listened and took action on it.
That may not sound very newsworthy. But all too often we hear the negative side of government in the media. In addition, I’ve seen many different councils in action. Too often, the council and staff speak, but no citizens come forward. Or, when a citizen does step up to the mike, the demeanor is accusatory and antagonistic vs. participatory. Sometimes a council or mayor will shoot down or dismiss citizen comments. Many times they will simply take notes, thank the citizen, and move on to the next order of business. It’s my perspective that “the people” don’t feel heard and the government didn’t quite gain the insight they needed.
That’s why this night was significant. A citizen was sharing a parks and recreation complaint. A particular group was apparently engaging in several examples of inappropriate conduct while on the grounds for a weekly event. Neighbors and other citizens trying to use the park were adversely affected.
This complaint was not a planned agenda item. It was shared during the citizen comments section of the meeting. But this citizen didn’t just come in and start yelling or accusing. Instead, he brought a group of people with him and carefully prepared notes to focus his points. He quantified the issues – how often this happens, what happens, what days, how many hours per day – and quantified the damages afterward. He brought 8×10 color photographs to share with the council. Some of these photos were taken from his house and some were from within the park. They were very compelling and substantiated his story. The citizen stayed within his allotted time to speak, shared the photos with council, and yielded the floor.
The mayor and council listened without interruption. There was some clarifying dialogue between council and the citizen, including some of the audience. The mayor tried to get audience members to step up to the podium to be recognized, but was somewhat flexible on speaking protocol. Some audience members appeared slightly offended or confused by the mayor’s request, however, and a little bit of tension started to build in the room. Another council member accurately “read” the audience and educated them on the speaking protocol and recording of the meeting. This explanation immediately broke the tension. The photos were carefully reviewed by council and the city manager expressed confidence that the matter would be handled given the new evidence. One council member reminded the people of the history of the current scoring system used for reserving the park. This system was a council improvement after prior park incidents and showed evidence of progress. The council and staff worked together to make the citizens feel heard and address the issue. At the end, the audience applauded!
In a way, this was just another meeting. It was nothing. After all, this IS the way it’s supposed to work. But in another way, it was everything. Given all the negative news and my personal experience, it was perfect. Regular people addressing a regular issue and taking care of it.
I wish every citizen in the country could see what I saw and get more involved. I wish all councils and trustees could understand how important it is to respect citizens and solicit their views. Given all the organizational challenges and financial constraints in local government these days, all the negative press, and all the finger-pointing, I hope to see a lot more of this in the future.