Three Minutes

Mayor Stebbins wants to limit public comment at City Commission meetings to 3 minutes. I think this is a fantastic idea, with one minor change.

As our sign code and zoning discussions taught us, there are those among us who quickly become addicted to the sound of their own voices. How many times must we listen to local zealots rage against legalized gambling (which, by the way, is decided by the legislature, not the City Commission) when discussing the sign code? The right to participate in a democratic republic is not the right to waste everyone else's time so you can feel good about yourself. Why should others be forced to listen to your incoherent ramblings so that they can get their turn to participate?

The only change I would propose is this: The Commission ought to provide for a 'petition process' whereby a resident can get more time if he or she truly has points to make that exceed the 3 minute time limit. These exemptions should be liberally, but not routinely, granted by the Commission. In other words, if someone is willing to put in the time to construct a cogent argument on point, then that person can have the time to make their point. The extra time, though, would not be granted for rambling diatribes.

Think of it like a judge at a trial; the judge decides what is admissible based on considerations of relevance, undue prejudice, probative value and the like. Why can't the Commission make similar determinations?

Also, there are other ways to make your point known to the Commission. Call them on the phone. Write them a letter. Start a 'blog. Write to the Tribune.

Oh, and on that topic, the Tribune had an editorial weighing against the restrictions. I thought it was interesting that, in a piece designed to oppose time limits, the Tribune pointed out that it restricts the length of letters to the editor. I would suggest that the reasoning for the Tribune's 250 word limit is the same as that of the Commission: make your point and move on. Maybe the "editor who spent decades learning to compress as much information in as short a space as possible" should move on from this issue and try to learn how to construct an argument without withholding pertinent facts or misrepresenting them....

UPDATE: Several commenters have suggested that a group be allowed to 'pool' its minutes and give them to one speaker. Great idea.

I had another thought, too. Why should the public be limited to 3 minutes, when staff has unlimited time to advocate for their proposed action? If the City Manager's office, or the planning staff, etc., thinks there should be a certain outcome on an issue, is it really fair to let them go on and on, and then give citizens only three minutes in opposition?

Maybe the issues need to be classified. For example, if I am representing a client with a particular problem, say a zone change, and I appear before the Commission I am going to scream bloody murder if they try to limit my argument to 3 minutes. The limit makes more sense, though, on those occasions when I am a member of the 'public' at large without a specific, personal stake in the outcome.


WolfPack said...

I thought the same thing about their opinion in light of the 250 word limit. "Do as I say not as I do", which in this case I'm sure is justified because the Tribunes time is worth vastly more than the commissioners (in the editors opinion).

I think a solution would be to implement the 3 minute rule with additional time granted if requested by the speaker at the discretion of the Mayor. This would provide a set interruption point stopping most and the Mayor would be still be able to limit the overall length of the comments without seeming like he/she was interrupting. That’s the problem with the current system is that the moderator of the proceedings has to come off looking a little rude when asking a speaker to bring it to a close. In line with GeeGuy’s idea when someone shows up representing an attending group the members could yield their time (within reason) to their representative speaker. That way we wouldn’t have to her from every member restating the same opinion as we do now when a big group shows up.

Walter Greenspan said...

wolfpack, for what it's worth, I second your proposal that others holding the same opinion or backing the same proposal should be able to individually yield their 3 minutes to the chief spokesman for the issue being put before the City Commission.

WolfPack said...

Maybe the solution is that you need to get on the agenda for the meeting. You would need to request a speaking slot ahead of time if you want to speak longer than 3 minutes and the amount of time allowed could be balanced against the speakers level of personal involvement. At the end of the day this would allow any serious blowhards to continue voicing their opinions but might put an end to the recreational blowhards.