Much of a Bend City Council meeting is pre-scripted, tame drama. Staff talks. Councilors discuss. Councilors vote. Then march through more agenda.
Decorum is the rule. There is the occasional councilor versus councilor clash. Few cliffhangers.
The public comment section is different. It can teem with surprise. It gets edgy. People criticize the city. What, though, should councilors do when the comments cross the line? And where is the line?
The Bend City Council rules subcommittee met last week and plans to meet again this week to talk about how public comment might be improved. How long should people be able to speak? When should the public comment be during the meeting? And are there other ways the council could gather public input?
Councilors have not made any changes, yet. They just talked about them. Some of the options discussed include:
1. Allow public comment for an hour at every meeting starting at a set time, perhaps from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Then, it would end. That idea seemed to be dismissed because public comment doesn’t usually last an hour, anyway.
2. Move public comment perhaps to the end of the meeting. That also seemed to be dismissed, because it would make it hard on the public to have to wait two hours or longer to be able to speak.
3. Allow other councilors — other than the mayor — to interrupt a speaker making inappropriate comments. As Mayor Sally Russell explained, she doesn’t know what people will say until they say it. And it can be difficult in the moment to decide if a speaker should be cut off. One suggestion was to also allow the Mayor Pro-Tem Gena Goodman-Campbell to interrupt a speaker. Another possibility is to open that up to all the councilors.
Councilor Rita Schenkelberg made an excellent point. She said the mayor or others councilors should not get into an exchange with that person over what the person said or how the person said it. The council could have a short, standardized statement to recite to end that person’s time and then shift to the next speaker. Minimize the drama. Sounds like a smart approach, if used with discretion.
4. Create other ways for the public to comment with the whole council. The public comment section of the meetings is special. It gives the public an opportunity to speak before the whole council. Live. A member of the public knows almost for certain that they will be heard, which is less certain when an email is sent. Members of the public want to have that ability to comment on the record, be recorded and allow others to hear what they have said.
Previous councils have had office hours. Usually two councilors would set up in a meeting room in City Hall or elsewhere and talk to whoever showed up. We attended a couple of those. We aren’t certain they were a roaring success. They may have just needed more time to take hold.
City Manager Eric King said staff is looking for ways that councilors could engage the public outside of the council meetings. One thing in particular that people seem to want is to have a dialogue or discussion with councilors on certain topics. Councilors generally don’t do that in the public comment section.
And it can be frustrating for speakers to ask passionate questions during a council meeting and get no response.
We hope we haven’t given the impression that councilors are gunning to silence criticism. They are not. Public comments are an important check and balance on what the city does. It’s the fabric of democracy. If comments deteriorate into ugly personal attacks, the city does need to have a smart way to hit the brakes.