In a recent meeting attended by a dozen interested citizens, Dunsmuir’s City Council members, on a unanimous 5-0 vote, took some bold steps to insure that order and decorum prevail at their meetings.
Most of the rules, or “protocols,” adopted by the Council concerned fairly routine items: the duties of the Mayor, guidelines for Council committees, preparation of Council agenda, etc., etc.
But in adopting this formal set of rules, the Council also took steps to distance itself from what it apparently views as a potentially unruly citizenry.
The newly adopted rules, while allowing a member of the public to address the Council for up to three minutes on agenda topics, admonishes Council members from “entering into a dialogue with members of the public who may address the Council.” The adopted rules also prevent any citizen from speaking more than once on any given topic.
And, based on my personal experience at a recent Council meeting, the mayor will prevent you from asking followup questions of Council members if you try to clarify the Council member’s response.
I think any reasonable person might wonder why “dialogues” and other types of interactions between a citizen and a Council member, assuming they’re conducted civilly and with serious intent, would be seen as anything other than a contribution to the public discussion. Especially when, typically, there are barely more people sitting in the audience than up on the dais.
In forcefully defending these rules, Council member Dave Keisler cited the raucous meetings of previous years, when members of the audience would shout out angry comments and generally disrupt efforts to have a civil public discussion and get the city’s business done.
I think most folks who regularly attend Dunsmuir's City Council meetings would agree that there’s nothing like that going on now, that the meetings have for some time been characterized by civil behavior and attitudes of mutual respect on the part of all speakers.
But a controversial agenda item could still draw a large crowd with a few bad actors, and this contingency could be covered by a simple rule that prohibits any member of the public from speaking without the express permission of the mayor, who would have the option of expelling anyone who flagrantly violates that rule. In the case of a large crowd showing up for a controversial item this policy should be clearly and forcefully stated right at the beginning of the discussion.
Instead, with its new rules the Council has chosen to treat all of us in the audience as bad actors (the few of us who bother to show up, that is), as people eager to engage Council members in useless and time-consuming “dialogues,” or worse, and to take up the Council’s time with unnecessary followup questions—instead of treating us as citizens capable of making a valuable contribution to the public discussion on important issues facing the city.
In adopting the rules outlined above, the members of the Dunsmuir City Council have provided a classic example of a solution in search of a problem. What they have accomplished is to discourage citizen participation in local government, in a town where, as we all know, we are plagued by an overabundance of such participation.