FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL
By Neil Williamson, President
In recent weeks, the Free Enterprise Forum has been troubled by the lack of professionalism and courtesy at local public meetings. The worst (but by no means only) offender is Charlottesville City Council.
During the understandably emotional public comment surrounding the Rivanna sewage pump station location, Charlottesville City Hall had the feel of a lynch mob, cheering loudly for each additional speaker.
In our opinion, the chair, in the case Mayor Dave Norris has a responsibility to limit or eliminate such outbursts for that very reason.
We are not alone in this opinion. Albemarle County‘s Planning Commission has schedule a training session regarding the “Best Practices for Public Bodies in Public Meetings” . In the material prepared for this training session it focuses on the importance of the chair to:
assure that civility and decorum are maintained…. control those who are not in control
The City of Mercer Island, Washington publishes its ban on such cheering along with its guidelines for speaking at a public meeting:
Please remember that it is not appropriate at anytime during the public meeting for members of the audience to disrupt the meeting (e.g. clapping, cheering, ridiculing or jeering). The Planning Commission Chair may require the removal of citizens who disrupt the orderly conduct of a meeting. If order cannot be restored by removal of individuals, the commission may order the meeting room cleared and may continue in session or it may adjourn and reconvene the meeting at another time, subject to certain limitations.
A month or so back we wrote of a Louisa Supervisor shouting down a citizen during the “Matters from the Public” portion of their meeting. Just as this supervisor explicitly attempted to silence a critic of Louisa County, public meetings punctuated by audience outbursts (applause, cheering, jeering) do not create an atmosphere of openness.
While we hold the public to a high standard we also hold the members of the board or commission to a similar standard. We expect when a member of the public speaks he or she is treated with respect.
Audience participation is not a partisan issue, the right, left, middle, green and other have all been guilty of this type of opinion suppression at different times in each of the localities.
In addition, if a meeting has the opportunity for “responses to matters from the public”, we believe such responses should not sidetrack the meeting and turn into a dialog. We also believe if a false statement is made, it should be identified and corrected.
In a recent Charlottesville meeting, a citizen said on the record that State Farm Insurance [an Albemarle County business] had all the money they needed and probably didn’t even pay taxes. Though given the opportunity, not one councilor spoke up regarding this false statement.
While the Free Enterprise Forum may not agree with all of the citizens that speak at public meetings, we believe it is imperative that the presiding chairs (and the respective members) work to foster a welcoming atmosphere for public comments. If comments are addressed they should be handled politely and expeditiously.
If a government body allows cheering and applause of speakers, those with contrary opinions will be discouraged from coming forward. The discussion will be diminished by this lack of inclusive participation. Minority opinions will no longer be presented and elected officials will have a false sense of the true will of the people.
As citizens we should demand civility and professionalism from ourselves AND all our public officials.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org