© 2015 By Bob Litton
In my last blog post, I introduced readers to a small slice of my community’s political structure and conflicts. After describing briefly the intention of our city council to reduce the opportunities for citizens to comment at council meetings, I pledged to combat their scheme. I therefore attended the next council meeting (August 4) and stated my case against the limiting of citizens’ comments to the very beginning of meetings. (Actually, I read my case because in my senior years I tend to forget the most common of words, not to mention names and dates; so I write out my comment whenever I know beforehand that I intend to say something.)
Below is a copy of that statement. Since, however, the city council is the smallest governmental unit in one of the world’s oldest democracies, and many readers of my WordPress blog do not dwell in similarly governed countries, I think it necessary to provide some background information here so that the sentences can be more readily comprehended. Another element that makes such background info desirable is that some of the facts and persons mentioned need their separate clarifications.
Firstly, our council consists of five “council members” plus the mayor; each of the council members represents one of the five wards in the city. Two places on the council are up for election in one year for a two-year term; and the remaining three places are open the next year. The mayor is elected for two years also.
As for “citizens’ comments”, for a decade or more, the order of the agenda specified three times when citizens could voice their views, after being invited individually by the mayor: (1) at the beginning of the meeting (after an invocation and pledges of allegiance to the nation and to the state); (2) during the “discuss/act” part of the meeting, as each item was taken up by the council; and (3) at the meeting’s end, after the council members have made their own comments about a variety of things.
Nearly every year, that order has been attacked by some of the council members as being disruptive and time-consuming and as a perceived invitation to verbally attack council members, either individually or as a group. Last year, after a contentious debate among themselves and some heavy criticism from several citizens, the council did away with the last period of citizens’ comments. This year, four of them wanted to drop the second period as well. However, after half a dozen of us citizens protested at the second, and expected final, reading of the ordinance the council was persuaded by our arguments that the wiser course would be to drop the first “citizens’ comments” period instead.
Another elitist element in the council’s proposed revision of the agenda was to restrict citizen-comment opportunity to persons who owned property or who operated a business within the city limits. Non-owners of property might speak, provided there was enough time after the council and property-owners had had their say. Since I agreed that non-property owners—such as myself—should not say anything regarding the property tax rate or anything else involving personal property, I did not object, although I felt that the council would be depriving themselves of potentially informative and sagacious advice.
I was the first to address the council; and, after I had had my say, other frequent attendees at council meetings (including one recent member of the council) pretty much echoed my sentiments.
During the “discuss/act” portion of the meeting, I found myself compelled to respond to some remarks by three of the council members. They had complained that citizens did not call them and express their views over the phone; and they brought out their statistical research which indicated that our town had more comment periods than most of the cities in the state, many of which do not allow for citizens to comment at all. I responded that many citizens—like myself—find it hard-going to talk to people, even friends, over the phone, especially about controversial subjects, because we cannot perceive and therefore cannot adapt our remarks to their reactions, positive or negative. Also, I said, we prefer to comment at council sessions because we like to hear our fellow citizens’ views on the same topic; we like the sense of community fellowship. As for the reference to statistical matter, I said, if the councilman wanted to compare us to the rest of Texas, why not go all out and bring up the world? Gauging our governance by comparison with many other countries—seeking the lowest common denominator—would leave us with no citizens’ comment period whatever.
Now for some clarifications:
- Ray Hendryx is the retired owner of radio stations KVLF-AM and KALP-FM. He reported on city council meetings before I assumed that responsibility in 2002.
- Ted Cruz is the freshman U.S. senator from Texas and currently a candidate for the presidency.
- The “Texas Open Meetings Act” (TOMA) is a state legislative prescription for how all meetings by public entities (city councils, school boards, hospital district boards, etc.) are to be conducted and how public officials are to conduct their actions and speech at meetings as well as out in the public arena. Ludicrously as well as hypocritically, the state Legislature exempts itself from the TOMA’s rules.
- The reference to “street signs” has to do with my protesting—on two occasions—petitions by groups of citizens seeking to have their streets’ signage changed from either a numeral (“1st Street”) or a letter of the alphabet (“Avenue B”) to the name of some individual they admired. I had experienced several problems with such changes, for my avenue’s name had been changed from 2nd Street to Fighting Buck Avenue. You readers can imagine at least some of the problems that can cause. Nonetheless, I failed to prevent the changes.
- The reference to individuals parking their vehicles in hangars at the airport actually involves only one person—a construction contractor who parked his business truck and other business-related materials in his hangar at the city airport. The city rents hangars to local pilots at a very sweet rate of ten cents per square foot per year! Other local businesspersons, of course, pay much more for warehousing elsewhere.
- The “pipeline issue” refers to a 42-inch gas pipeline which two billionaires—one a Texan and the other a Mexican—want to lay between the oil patch a couple of hundred miles north of here to the U.S.-Mexico border (the Rio Grande River) and beyond. The project aroused a big protest in our county and in two of our neighboring counties because of the potential for huge explosions and the resulting risk to lives and properties in this area. Although my property was not at risk, my life was, so I felt it was appropriate for me to comment.
- “Molly” is the City secretary. She was recording the minutes of the council meeting while I was speaking.
Below is the text of my comments to the city council on Aug. 4, 2015:
My name is Bob Litton. I reside in an apartment on Fighting Buck Avenue, in Ward 1.
I will offer my view—perhaps for the last time—on the council’s proposed revision of Ordinance 2014-08-01…or Action Item Number 9… on the agenda.
I have been attending Alpine City Council meetings since August 2002, when I started reporting on the meetings for radio station KVLF. I retired from that contracted career in 2011, but I kept coming fairly regularly because I was interested in what was happening and what was going to happen here through the City council’s efforts. There used to be more regular attendees than there are now, including Jack McNamara, Pete Smyke, Bob Brewer, and Bennett Jones who was very interested in pushing the council toward alternative energy sources. They were all energetic participants in the conversations here. Jack moved to Oregon; Pete is still here, as is Bob Brewer; I don’t know about Mr. Jones. Anyway, they don’t come anymore, or only seldom. It could get a bit rowdy in here at times; there was even a little dirty politics. The meetings could extend overly long, up to five hours, mostly because of a mayor who was inept at moderating the sessions.
There were attempts to squelch comments. On one occasion, when the council passed what became known as the “gag rule”…this was before I started reporting…Ray Hendryx arose from his chair and stomped out.
Yes, we have citizens who hem and haw, who repeat what has already been said by someone else, who yell or at least have naturally very loud voices, and some who don’t understand an agenda item well enough to say anything sensible about it. But this is a democracy, people! City council chambers and state legislature forums all over the nation, and the congressional meeting room, have regular exhibitions of rambunctiousness and absurdity. Do you recall Senator Ted Cruz’s reading a Dr. Seuss book during his filibuster?
This is not a corporate boardroom, ladies and gentlemen. I repeat: this is not a corporate boardroom. This is one of the meeting halls of the people in this community. Instead of trying to squelch the odd democratic conversation, you should be trying to broaden and enliven it.
I like the format for the council meetings as it is now. But what do you want to do? You want to limit people’s comments to early in the meeting, when hardly any citizen knows the details—the pros and cons—of proposed actions. If you wish to persist in being autocrats, then delete the first comments period and retain the citizens’ opportunity to comment during the “discussion/action” period of the meeting, when they can have a clearer idea of what the hell is going on.
As for your limiting comments to property-owners, I—as a renter—would accept that with the proviso that the rule applies only when matters affecting private property are being considered. I have never commented on the tax rate. Nor have I ever commented on anything that concerned how people take care of their property. I have restricted my remarks to the Open Meetings Act, street signs, and individuals who have been using airport hangars to park their private business vehicles. I did also suggest an approach to the pipeline issue. Molly, correct me if you recall any subjects I have omitted.
I suggest that you drop this silly revision and leave the agenda as it is, which is quite satisfactory.