Council Reporter Speaks Out Against New Timer

Opinion Piece by Heidi Zemach

This new digital timer appeared on the dias at last week's City Council meeting. HZ photo
This new digital timer appeared on the dias at last week’s City Council meeting. HZ photo


The Seward City Council now has a large digital timer on display on the council member’s dais, with lit up red numbers counting down the amount of time in minutes and seconds that citizens may speak during the “Citizens Comment” periods. The City Clerk’s office and Council have been waiting for a working timer for a long time, as the old timer has not worked for several years. The clerks have been using a regular kitchen timer, and they feel it will make their own timing job easier, and the citizens talking, (and also those watching on TV) will now be able to clearly see how much time they have left to speak.

How splendid and civilized!

I can’t wait to hear how loud its buzzer is!


Now, I know that some people may not agree with me on this. Some may want to hold citizens whose views they don’t happen to share to three minutes exactly and not a second longer. Or some may want the meetings to be more efficient, and go by faster. But I feel that limiting citizen’s comments to just three minutes near the beginning of every meeting, and five minutes at the end of the meeting, is unnecessary, and inherently undemocratic. It discourages the free and open exchange of ideas by regular folks. This flashy new timer may be a great idea for debate club, or basketball games, but I predict it will be intimidating to regular folks—especially those least accustomed to public speaking. Do you like trying to getting a point across to someone who is constantly checking their watch or cell phone? This flashy timer only serves to underscore the fact that one’s time is limited, and one’s views of little importance.

I hate to suggest that money already spent on something, $460 in this case, should not be used, or should be used only under very special circumstances. But what we need in Seward is to encourage greater participation in the public process, not less. I could easily name most of the citizens who come speak out at meetings during “Citizen’s Comments”: Tim McDonald, Sue McClure, Jim Herbert, Willard Dunham, Kerry Martin, Tom Tougas, Cindy Clock, all of who are fairly seasoned speakers. Usually, there’s no more than one or two of them at each meeting however—unless new taxes or fluoridating the public water supply are on the agenda.

Why, in a meeting that may last up to three and a half hours, where the manager’s report or former mayor’s report may take 15-20 minutes, and the city attorney’s report even longer, why limit residents to three minutes apiece, or a collective total of 36 minutes at the beginning of a meeting?

True, here in Seward in particular, most people prefer to air their opinions privately, not wanting to offend any of their neighbors. They let those they elected, or the few who always do the talking, do the talking for them. With no names and faces to openly share their views however, there’s a silent seething of public discontent that erupts from time to time at council meetings or elections, surprising everyone there who thought everything was hunky dory.

Ever wonder why there aren’t more people running for election, volunteering for advisory boards, attending meetings and speaking out?

What do you think?



  1. Ha-had to read the article. I had a different idea about “old timers” and “new timers” at the city council meetings.

  2. I see where you’re coming from, Heidi, and get your point. It is valid. On the other hand, as someone who has taught and still teaches public speaking, in today’s world people need to understand how to make their point concisely. That’s the nature of today’s media. People can always write out their comments and read them, or find someone else to present them. Citizens need to sit down and think carefully about the point they want to make and prepare. For some, it won’t work to just speak unprepared. They’ll tend to just go on and on, circling the point. I wouldn’t be opposed more flexible times. Perhaps the beginning comments could be up to 5 minutes, and the end comments up to 8 minutes. But a person should be able to make their point in that amount of time. If they can’t, and want to make a lengthy argument will all kinds of evidence, they need to put it in writing and send it to council. And even at that, most people don’t have time to read pages and pages of argument. Even that needs to be concise and to the point. That’s the nature of today’s world. People, for good or bad, have less patience. That’s the audience we’re dealing with. People want you to get to your point quickly and concisely. Our elected officials have an obligation to listen to us. And we have an obligation to think our comments through and to be civil, organized and concise.

  3. It is amazing to me how much the “citizens” and “public” get shut down. They get minutes while the “important people” get however long. The people need to take back their voice and be heard. The elected officials are public servants and I think people forget that.

  4. Are you kidding me…..? This is news?