“Speak now, or just write”

"It’s 11 p.m. Do you know where your city council member is?If it’s the second or fourth Wednesday of the month, they’re probably at the Bainbridge Commons, heading into their fifth hour of deliberations on ordinances, budgeting and other affairs of city. And to a member, they and Mayor Dwight Sutton agree, it’s time to go home.“After 10 p.m., any decision I make, I’d like to review the next morning,” Councilman Merrill Robison says."

  • Tuesday, November 23, 1999 6:00am
  • News

“It’s 11 p.m. Do you know where your city council member is?If it’s the second or fourth Wednesday of the month, they’re probably at the Bainbridge Commons, heading into their fifth hour of deliberations on ordinances, budgeting and other affairs of city. And to a member, they and Mayor Dwight Sutton agree, it’s time to go home.“After 10 p.m., any decision I make, I’d like to review the next morning,” Councilman Merrill Robison says.Lengthy public meetings in this community are nothing new, and have long been a de facto social event – we see some of our best friends in the council gallery. In years past, hearings on geoduck clam harvesting, cellular phone towers and the comprehensive plan dragged on for hours as dozens of speakers took to the microphone. It could be tedious, but we made some new acquaintances. All we needed were some cookies and punch for a full-blown social.But Robison, for one, believes that all council meetings are running on too long, that time is frittered away with pointless presentations, and that – are you listening? – too much time is devoted to public comment.We understand Robison’s frustration, and are often kept out past our own bedtime to document the council’s business. And a recent trend toward publicity stunts isn’t helping. So far this year, organized bands have stormed the council chambers to demand more code enforcement, the preservation of farmland and other actions. Worthy issues, but they had no bearing on the proceedings at hand. Such displays are at worst grandstanding, and at best reflect a misunderstanding of the role and authority of the city council.Going to the council to, say, call for the planning director’s head, is pointless. The council has no authority to hire or fire department heads or anyone else, nor do they have any say in day to day operations – that’s why we have a city administrator and mayor. It’s a point Sutton has started to emphasize, and we agree with his tack. If you’ve got a gripe about clogged ditches on your street, go to city hall – during business hours.But limiting public comment at council meetings is problematic, not least for appearances. While Robison would like to see comment at a fixed 15 minutes, others don’t want the council perceived as unwilling to hear what citizens have to say.That’s why we were glad to see the recent revival of annual neighborhood meetings, in which the mayor and council members spent an evening in their own wards to hear from folks. Those meetings were well attended, brought out some new faces, and raised issues that deserved a forum, even if it wasn’t in a formal council setting. Regular town meetings would do a lot to give the average citizen a soapbox.In the meantime, council members should also ask themselves: “Is that annoying voice I hear my own?”“I could gavel you down,” Sutton told the council recently, to which chair Norm Wooldridge jokingly rejoined, “Shut them up! Don’t shut me up!”Aye, there’s the rub. While we take Wooldridge’s comment in good jest, there isn’t a single council member who hasn’t been guilty of trying to shoehorn in an eleventh-hour change to ordinances or resolutions long hammered out in committee. A little more respect for the process – and having the humility to just refrain from comment sometimes – would do a lot to speed things along.Where public process is concerned, this community has always erred on the side of inclusiveness. But a change of thinking may be in order for all of us, at least to the extent of redirecting our input.More efficient meetings, for less public comment? It’s up to you to tell the mayor and council if it’s a fair trade-off.They’d welcome your views – in writing.####”

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