Opinion Piece by Heidi Zemach
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?