Rhino Times editor John Hammer has a suggestion for improving the once-a-month meeting Greensboro City Council has for hearing from the public. Hammer suggests new rules and strict enforcement. Speak out of turn and get thrown out of the chamber, he recommends. Make it more like a golf tournament than a football game, he suggests.
There is a flaw in Hammer’s premise though that, if he thinks about it, I’m sure he would recognize from his decades of observing city council meetings.
Public comments at city council meetings are not tempestuous simply because speakers and supporters are rambunctious by nature. It’s not a matter of football fans showing up instead of golf fans. Tumult arises when the response by council to a public concern is inadequate and people must, literally and figuratively, raise their voices. It has been that way for years.
These forums are not becoming heated just because people want to blow off steam. People are coming to these forums because they perceive a need for action and, just as in the past, the atmosphere is getting raucous because elected officials are side-stepping concerns and remaining immune to facts brought to their attention.
In a normal conversation, that separation gets ironed out by give and take: one person can add, “But you are overlooking this…” the other, “I hear you, but that doesn’t seem to be true.” Through back and forth, people come to a better understanding — a necessity for competent elected representation.
This type of conversation doesn’t happen with the kind of one-way speech making the current forum format encourages. So, when council representative Justin Outling admonishes his colleagues for responding to speakers, that is exactly the wrong prescription. There should be more more give and take, not less.
When a speaker at a council public forum poses a question or challenges the position of a particular council person, council members should respond. They should feel free to ask questions of their own too. If the United State Congress can manage it during public hearings, so can Greensboro’s City Council.
I’d wager this: If city council finds a way to have more of a conversation with the public during these forums, passions will cool and disruptions will lessen. I’m also convinced that if council tries to clamp down further on back and forth, it will not eradicate discontent, it will only add to the tension.