There is room for improvement and consistency in how local governing bodies handle public comment during their meetings. Some of the rules for getting on the agenda for these meetings aren’t helping to make the public feel welcome.
The Sedgwick County Commission expects people who want to speak on the public comment portion of its meetings to make a written request at least nine days in advance – an unreasonable lead time that likely has a chilling effect on people’s desire to address the commissioners. GOP activist Mark Gietzen’s success in getting the rule relaxed to allow comments on fluoridation at Wednesday’s meeting should lead to a permanent policy change.
The Wichita City Council isn’t much better, requiring would-be speakers on the public part of the agenda to sign up by noon on the Tuesday preceding the meeting at which they want to speak. That usually means a week ahead.
The Wichita school district’s policy makes the most sense, asking that people register to speak during the “public communications” part of the agenda by calling the board clerk by noon the day of the meeting but also accepting new names up to 10 minutes before the meeting starts.
But how members of the public are treated was a concern earlier this year at the school board, where parents trying to make critical but valid points about pending school closings were interrupted and threatened with expulsion from the meeting.
More recently, some members of the City Council have exhibited a similar defensiveness and lack of empathy when addressed by loved ones of some of the people who have been killed or wounded in confrontations with police over the past year. Mayor Carl Brewer’s enforcement of time limits on public speakers also can seem selective, as it did at last week’s meeting on the Old Town ordinance changes.
To their credit, elected officials on these boards have been known to ignore the rules in favor of letting people speak, and erring on the side of more input is rarely wrong. Especially at the City Council, it’s not uncommon for the same few speakers to make statements on multiple agenda items (though that can try leaders’ patience, especially when the comments are repetitious).
And anyone who speaks to any of these local government leaders should do so in a manner that demonstrates respect for their offices and the facts – not always the case, unfortunately.
But leaders could be more mindful of how they treat the constituents and taxpayers who are motivated to attend and speak at their meetings, and update their policies accordingly.
As it is, the priority for the governing bodies can appear to be whatever the rules say, rather than ensuring people have their say and are heard.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman