EDITORIAL: Chaos doesn’t serve the public's interestThe city council meeting fell into a low-grade chaos that wasn’t pretty.
A key city council campaign issue was the body’s three-minute speaking rule, which limits public input during meetings. In a Wednesday editorial, The Telegram suggested more flexibility is needed. Later that day, city officials unofficially ignored a few rules of order during their council meeting. Their experiment proved us wrong. The meeting fell into a low-grade chaos that wasn’t pretty.
People popped out of their chairs to address issues whether they had signed up in advance; councilors spoke three or more times about the same issue (their limit is two); one person wasn’t heard at all when making a point about government spending (councilors were busy chatting among themselves).
To some, this was an invigorating display of democracy in action. But a historical review explains why the rules of order were enacted.
In January 2000, a South Superior woman came to address the council on an issue. As citizens and councilors chimed in repeatedly without rule, the hour grew later and later. After midnight — more than five hours into the council meeting — she stood up and asked “When are you going to get to my issue?” as one councilor filibustered on another topic.
That meeting, not unlike Wednesday night’s run-amok session, demonstrates listening is a function of the ears, not the mouth. Soon thereafter, the offending councilor was ousted and the mayor was recalled.
The council’s rules are spelled out clearly in the city’s code of ordinances:
• Any citizen who wishes to address the council on any agenda item may sign up with the city clerk and indicate the issue.
• All comments by members of the public are limited to three minutes.
The council has an obligation to abide by its own rules. But if three minutes is too short, the ordinance can be revised.
Despite our previous call for more flexibility, elected bodies must follow some formal rules. If councilors allow people to run long on a topic this week, when the agenda is thin, but limit them on another issue next month, when the agenda is packed, complaints of favoritism invariably will arise, never mind the circumstances. Rules can be aggravating, but sometimes they’re necessary to ensure fairness from person to person, meeting to meeting.