Pardon the interruption…

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.

– Sid

Related: “DeKalb City Council addresses public comment problems”

State of the Blog

Hello there.

I’m one of the new mods/writers for the City Barbs Blog selected to fill in for Lynn Fazekas after she took the office of City Clerk. While some readers already know me, I thought it would be best to introduce myself.

So, firstly, I’m an NIU alum who majored in computer science. Yes, sadly I didn’t major in journalism. But if it makes you feel any better, I once pursued an associate degree in philosophy before I realized that it wasn’t going to make me money any time soon. On the plus side, there is likely to be data in posts of mine if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve written several letters to the editor and attended/watched some city council meetings in the past. Lynn would tell you she picked me because of my commitment to the truth, but I’m doing this because I’m easily bribed with food (just kidding, sorta). What else? I’m an Air Force veteran where I worked in metrology; I have interests in the 1st Amendment, OMA, FOIA, local history, and education; and I used to catch plagiarism in computer programming courses for a living when I worked as a teaching assistant, so I can pay quite a bit attention to detail.

I’ve been conversing with Lynn and Bessie over the past few weeks to get an understanding of the forum rules, the origins and the role of the blog, current issues, etc. while we transition the responsibility of running this gig. Please forgive us for any delays as Bessie is still learning how to use the newfangled Facebook thing, and I’ve been somewhat apprehensive to act independently and make snap judgments. We appreciate your patience while we try to get things settled, and I can assure that all of us have the same desire to maintain a forum of political discussion where everyone feels welcome to participate. We do have some posts planned for this month but let us know if there’s anything you’d like us to focus on.

I also want to say something about the State of the City Address held last week. I had planned to attend and had taken the day off from work, but I was turned away because they didn’t have a card reader at the door. While it has been pointed out that the address was recorded and posted online, the event itself was nevertheless one of breaking bread and a mingling of minds. There was more there than the statements of a couple government officials, there were conversations – ones of not just economic importance but social and cultural as well. As a citizen journalist who wishes to be informed of matters so that I might in turn better facilitate discussion, I am now less able to do so. And considering the relatively steep price of the event and the fact that this was done prior to the official State of the City Address, the impression given (hopefully inadvertently) is that the interests of the community at large are less of a priority than solely business interests. In the future, the City should make every effort to avoid barriers which prevent all members of the public from listening and contributing to such conversations, and if it wishes to continue holding these events with the Chamber of Commerce, then I would recommend hosting it in the commons to avoid even the semblance of impropriety.