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Village Matters

Rejoice; people want to be involved!

A woman came up to the microphone in an almost empty council chambers.  It was near midnight. Council members were tired, but this was time for public communication.

I was a council member in the 1990s and at that time we scheduled public communication at the end of the meeting, the rationale being that we had to finish the items on our agenda first before diverting onto other topics that the public might raise.

This woman was very upset about what she had to say, and because she had been waiting since 6 p.m. to say it.  Her mailbox had been vandalized and she was worried about the safety of her neighborhood.

I don’t remember how we council members responded, but the fact that I still think about this incident with regret tells me that our follow-up was less than satisfactory to our testifier.

How much better it is now that the council provides 30 minutes at the beginning of their meetings for airing these kinds of off-agenda concerns. They are able to respond with a fresh mind, and see to it that the issues are addressed.

Now instead of being on the dais, I am one of those pesky members of the public that comes to maybe three or four city meetings a month—design review, arts commission, planning commission, heritage committee, council.  I research certain issues that concern me and come ready to participate in the process.  Having been on both sides of the table, I am more aware than most of how the meetings are handled, and how the public is treated.

I find that in some cases there is a culture of control, an emphasis on keeping within time limits and protocol even when there is only one speaker, the chamber is empty, and it’s early in the evening.  The public hearing is closed and we must sit mute.  How frustrating it is to know the answers to questions being discussed and not be allowed to speak!

Then there are the unnoticed committee meetings of commissioners that the public can attend (if they find out about them.)  But participation in the discussion is not allowed.

What a difference there is attending a meeting where the public is appreciated for their participation and there is interest in what the speakers are bringing to the subject at hand.

Local government can be a rewarding, collaborative process.  The Vision 2030 project involved hundreds of us in developing recommendations on the future of our town.  Many of these have already been implemented, largely because of the enthusiasm generated by the shared ideas developed by the citizen groups.

We can accomplish so much working together. Let’s get past all the artificial limits on how we can be involved. Can we foster enthusiasm and rejoice in our active citizenry?

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect and former councilmember and mayor of Laguna Beach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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