On Politics: How to handle public comments (opinion)
“How would you assess the relationship between our local Incline/Crystal Bay government and the citizenry?”
I asked this question of longtime local Chuck Otto. His response was immediate. “There is a small group of people determined to harass IVGID at every turn of the road” he said. “Baseless law suits, multiple ethics complaints, reams of paper used for ‘citizen correspondence,’ platoons of speakers berating trustees at formal meetings” he added. “For example the current board packet is 770 pages including a citizen’s 37 page tome criticizing the board chair, his 44 page critique of an award IVGID won for financial reporting, and his critique of a trustee commending staff for bringing a project in $350,000 under budget. It’s these sort of things that discourage citizens from participating in trustee meetings because they have grown so rancorous and protracted,” Otto concluded.
If you think that’s bad consider what’s going on across the state line in California’s capitol. According to the Sacramento Bee: “ … the heckling, abuse, disruption and general contempt that have too often characterized recent Sacramento City Council meetings have become dispiriting and counterproductive.”
The piece describes the frequency (monthly) that participants are hauled from the council chambers by police, most often for engaging in profanity in the act of condemning the mayor or council members in soliloquies exceeding the short time allotted for individual comment.
In response the council enacted a ban on “abusive or threatening” protesters at its meetings which, the Bee notes, may run afoul of the First Amendment as well as California’s Ralph M. Brown (open meeting) Law.
The ban so enraged citizens that public commenters appeared seriatim to condemn the measure. When a right-wing gadfly slipped into the column of speakers to excoriate “identity politics,” this, having nothing to do with the council’s ban, triggered chaos, shouting, F-bombs and someone who produced a dog whistle, forcing a hasty adjournment of the day’s proceedings.
The Bee doesn’t let the local lawmakers off the hook.
“It hasn’t helped that council members all but hold their noses during public comment periods, whispering in sidebars and checking their phones or leaving the room altogether for extended periods while some citizen is speaking,” the newspaper admonished.
By the same token, the piece continued, “Nor have relations been necessarily improved by cheap Nazi references in a city whose mayor is not only known as an earnest progressive but also the husband of a cantor and brother of a rabbi.”
The Bee concludes: “Shouting and sneering don’t make cities better. Respect and compromise do.”
Good advice but unlikely to quell any civic firebrands either in Sacramento or Incline Village.
Here’s a possibility. How about assessing public comment $1 for the first minute, $5 for the next two minutes and then an overtime rate of $500 for each minute exceeding three.
That would incentivize clear concise and brief comments, penalize profanity and perhaps allow municipal governments to lower taxes and fees. Moreover, local elected officials would be much more encouraging of citizen speech and less likely to call the police once the speaker entered the overtime period.
If you remember pay phones you’ll recall the operator breaking in to say: “Deposit five dollars for another three minutes, please.” That can be the task of city clerks.
Barred by the First Amendment? Not really.
The Constitution prohibits laws “abridging the freedom of speech” but doesn’t say that exercise of that right must be cost free. Businesses and politicians spend trillions on TV ads, billboards and news print; no one can tell them what to say but they can tell them what it costs.
So, “put your money where your mouth is” and problem solved.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada State GOP Central committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.