I’m going to begin this blog post by pointing out that on the City Barbs group we don’t adhere to strict standards of civility. Instead, we try to permit heated moments in which citizens may vent their frustration at public officials. If a citizen is justifiably aggrieved, expressing their anger how they see fit helps to communicate just how abhorrent the situation has become.
I find myself in this quasi-media role as a political forum moderator and blogger with a dilemma about what to do when a public official begins to write abrasive posts in response to constituents. You can ordinarily expect them to act professionally. However, serving in office can be a thankless job, especially in high conflict communities where listening to every lamentation and ill-informed opinion can be grating on one’s patience, and occasionally there are instances when they lose their temper. I have wondered if perhaps those who volunteer to do it deserve a little clemency every once in a while.
On Monday, February 11th, the City Council discussed an ordinance to amend the rules for public comment. Those who regularly participate know that there is public participation at the beginning for speaking about anything that is not on the agenda, and then there’s also discussion reserved before each agenda item. This has often led to members of the public waiting hours through long meetings before having any opportunity to speak to their item of interest. The ordinance presented would move all public comment to the beginning except for people who “have a unique standing relative to a given item.” The trade-off to this is that if someone wanted to speak to an item on the agenda and also some other matter not germane to anything on the agenda, it would diminish the total time they would be afforded.
Now, I want to draw attention to Alderman Fagan’s remarks.
That outburst had startled me a bit as I listened to the audio on my computer. I had to go back and watch it to try to see what had caused the commotion, but with it having occurred off camera I assumed he was yelling at one of the two who had commented, Bessie Chronopoulos or Steve Kapitan. Bessie later informed me that it was her mumbling something to herself which provoked him. My fellow co-moderator was speaking out of order despite not directing her comment at council. While being interrupted is frustrating, after a few awkward seconds of silence he didn’t really have anything more to add. So, it wasn’t serious enough to make this kind of reaction worthwhile. It only served to browbeat. This on top of the fact that he’s arguing in favor of rolling back opportunities for public comment to the minimum required by law sends the message of wanting to control the conversation and shut the public out.
I’ve decided that I’m going to apply the same general standards and expectations of conduct as ordinary citizens. There are multiple reasons for this, but the obvious one is because it is my intention to ensure that public officials are responsive to citizens. You can raise your voice, YOU CAN TYPE IN ALL CAPS, you can give the occasional insult in a good-natured ribbing. If a citizen is responsible for some egregious harm to city council or the community, then the public officials should have a similar liberty to direct their ire at what they find objectionable. But any action that escalates conflict, makes anyone feel unwelcome to contribute to democratic discourse, or serves to censor speech is simply not appropriate, and that’s the case in this instance here. The mayor, as chair of the meeting, should do more to address such outbursts in the future.