Seven minutes. That’s how long you’ll get to talk on camera before City Council on every consideration item on the agenda, plus an additional seven minutes for ‘Communications from Citizens’, and another seven for the Consent Agenda if you choose to take advantage of it. During a typical Council meeting with two consideration items, that means that anyone so inclined can tie up 28 minutes of the meeting with just their commentary.
New Business is a regular agenda item
Of late there have been multiple complaints about items brought forth during the New Business portion of the regular Council agenda. These particular items have not set well with some people, and so they’ve used as part of their arguments against them that they were “brought up in the middle of the night.”
The reason why this regular agenda item sometimes doesn’t come up until 11:30PM is because we’re forced to sit through seven minutes for everyone who cares to speak during Communications from Citizens, the agenda item that precedes New Business. The importance of this is hard to overstate.
New Business is the portion of the meeting where our elected representatives can bring up issues not on the agenda which they consider important and in need of discussion and action. It is when they are supposed to carry out their job of improving the city!
Residents who want to remain informed about the goings on in their local government deserve to see the New Business portion of the meeting before O’dark-thirty, when usually the only people who are still up are unemployed teenagers playing video games: Residents should have the right to expect that the meetings will be conducted expeditiously so they can stay up late enough to watch the entire meeting.
But why do we need shorter time limits, or perhaps flexible time limits? In order to understand that, first we must understand the motivations of the people who speak at council meetings.
Motivations of Speakers
In the years I’ve been active in city politics, I’ve spoken before council perhaps several dozen times. I’ve watched countless others speak before council as well. In my experience, there are only a few motivations a speaker might have to go before council. I list these here in order of importance:
- An attempt to persuade: the speaker tries to persuade council members who are undecided on the issue at hand to vote his way.
- An attempt to convince: the speaker tries to enhance the conviction of those council members who are leaning his way already that their assessment of the issue is correct, thus solidifying their vote.
- An attempt to inform: the speaker tries to inform council about something germane to city business that they have somehow not learned in their own voluminous research and reading of backup material.
- Taking the opportunity to say what they feel about an issue: the speaker weighs in with his own personal viewpoint, and purports that to represent the viewpoint of the silent majority.
- An attempt to put their own personal brand on an issue: the speaker uses the meeting as a way to get his face on television to achieve name recognition, to recruit supporters for an upcoming election, or to annoy those members of the sitting council who they perceive as their competition. The issue itself is just a vehicle used to deliver themselves before the camera.
As I’ve said, I listed these in order of importance. Attempting to persuade or convince council is the highest form of citizen participation in local government. Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 “Freedom of Speech” painting evokes this highest use of our right to speak. The ability to do this is a big part of what the speech clause of the First Amendment was designed to protect, and it does so admirably. When someone is doing this, and doing it well, he is truly serving all of us.
Attempting to inform council is a little bit more questionable, but I have seen it work out well on occasion. Usually the residents don’t know as much as council does about an issue. I would hazard this to be true about 95% of the time, actually. That 5% of the time can be important, however, and if a true subject matter expert speaks before council sometimes minds are changed for the better. Also, this can be successful during the Communications from Citizens segment: sometimes the residents raise issues that have escaped council and the administration. I’ve seen issues with flooding, sewage overflows, broken streets, and dangerous city trees brought to light during Communications from Citizens. It is a worthy use of the time.
Taking the opportunity to say what you feel about an issue is certainly respectable…up to a point. I trade here in opinion and commentary, but coming here to read what I think about something is optional. You don’t have to suffer through me blathering on for seven minutes to get my opinion of something if I write it down here. I like to think of writing here as a more polite way to express myself on the issues than confiscating the public’s time by standing at the microphone. Most of the time what I personally think about an issue isn’t, and shouldn’t be, all that important to the city as a whole. The meeting is not about me, it’s about the business of the city. If you want my opinion, come here and read it. Otherwise, for the most part, I am satisfied to keep my thoughts to myself.
When people use the podium to promote their own personal brand, they’re abusing the city council meetings. The chronic, worst offenders, the ones who speak the most often and for the longest time, are ALL guilty of this. No purpose is served when we see you at the podium, congratulating the DPW on the fine job they did the other day plowing the snow. Nobody should have to suffer through watching you on TV talking about “Making Sterling Heights Great Again” as you launch your 2017 campaign for office. The city’s historical legacy will not be improved by hearing out your whack-job theories on things like “Smart Meters” being the newest instruments of government surveillance. Nobody should have to listen to you carrying out your personal vendetta against Mayor Taylor and/or his wife. Nobody needs to see you coming in from another city to spend time at our city’s meeting to tell us what you think about how something went elsewhere. This stuff is maddening, it happens all too frequently, and it is destructive to the democratic process. It needs to stop. Although we cannot completely stop these abuses, we can, and we should, limit them so they do not take up any more of the public’s time than necessary.
Relax, the First Amendment is safe
If I really want to bend the collective body politic’s ear on a subject, I’ve got no shortage of places to do it. Aside from this blog that you’re currently reading, which by the way costs me nothing other than my time to maintain it, there is also the Sterling Heights Local Politics group on Facebook. Plus, I’ve got endless opportunities with Twitter, YouTube, and other social media to make my point. Also at my disposal are the tried and true options of writing letters to Council, to the local newspapers, and making phone calls.
Our First Amendment rights will be safe regardless of the length of the speaking time limit at Council meetings, contrary to what some people will try to tell you. No, you may not get seven minutes on television, but if you need seven full minutes of the whole city’s attention to make a point, you’re probably doing it wrong. You’re probably unprepared. You probably don’t know what you’re talking about, or you’re not expressing your ideas particularly well. You might, maybe should practice a bit and hone it down to a more reasonable length of time. Regardless, we don’t need to watch you ramble and stumble for that length of time just so we can see all of the agenda items.
So how long is long enough?
That’s a really good question. As I’ve said, three or four minutes are all I’ve needed to make my point. In many cases, a well prepared speaker can clearly make a point in a minute. It’s done in the U.S. Congress all the time, with 300-word ‘One Minute Speeches’.
I would be in favor of a flexible limit: longer for agenda items, shorter for Communications from Citizens. Remember, the mayor has the discretionary power to ignore the time limit if he so chooses: if you are so compelling, and council is hanging breathless on your every word, you’re going to get a few extra seconds to finish your thought.
On balance, I think four minutes is more than fair. It’s certainly long enough, on the one hand, and it will trim the abuses back to a more manageable level on the other hand. Three minutes might be pushing it, but I could live with that. Five minutes, in my opinion, is just too long. Two minutes is probably way too short.
Who will fight against this the hardest?
The people who are going to fight this tooth and nail are the ones who abuse their right to speak the most egregiously. They are the wanna-be politicians, the gadflies, and the people who probably should get a different hobby. Mrs. Taylor has cheerfully termed these folks “the bobbleheads” because you see them speaking at almost every meeting, wagging their heads at the camera. I thought it was such an apt description that I made a video about it:
Often you can decide the merits of an issue by who takes sides against it. I have a feeling this will be true in this case. The people who fight hardest against this will be the same, chronic abusers of their free speech rights that we see twice each month. They will be the folks who will distort the truth and tell you that this represents an attack on the First Amendment, and that “our right to speak is being taken away.”
Don’t believe them. They are far more interested in their ‘right’ to be on camera than your right to free speech.