City Journal Winter 2016

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Pete Peterson
What Brown Can Do for You « Back to Story

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For a detailed analysis of proposed revisions to the Brown Act, along the lines of those suggested by Mr. Peterson, I recommend the 2003 report, "Too Much Sun? Emerging Challenges Presented by California & Federal Open Meeting Legislation to Public Policy Consensus-Building Processes" by Lauri Boxer-Macomber.
Richard C. Hughes March 02, 2013 at 6:22 PM
Mr. Peterson misses the point. The 3-minute comment period at public hearings is all too often the only chance the individual citizen has to make his views known to public officials in a public setting. He can write them, of course, but there's no guarantee that anything he has written will ever be read by them.

The real problem is not that John Q. Citizen gets to speak, but that he only gets three minutes. In my experience, this is too little time in which to make any meaningful comment, since a complicated subject has to be reduced to buzz words, "money quotes", or sound bites in order to get any point across.

Yes, the same people often show up at meeting after meeting for their three minutes before the mike and, yes, some of them are cranks, but my experience in attending public hearings through the years is that a high percentage of those who take the time to show up to comment have something worthwhile to say. Unfortunately, too often they are addressing stony-eyed officials who are fiddling with their papers, checking their e-mail, or staring into space.

It's not that the public too often has nothing to say; it's that all too often we have public officials who have no willingness to listen. And it's my experience also that the more dysfunctional the agency, the less willing it is to pay any attention to the public's suggestions or complaints.
As one who has devoted years to challenging the rampant abuse of power in the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, I found this article misleading and terribly sad. To broadly characterize citizens’ remarks at open meetings as "'three-minutes-at-the-mic' rants" to be endured is offensive and depressing. The slur that so-called gadflies "discourage thoughtful participation and exchange of information" and do not provide an "opportunity to find new solutions" is revealing.

The point seems to be that the public’s only hope is to sit back while "experts" figure it out for us backward citizens. I hope you will pardon me if reference to a network of public sector officials and municipal lawyers leaves me cold. We already have the “legal frameworks” for civic engagement. And it is regularly frustrated by lack of principled enforcement. Why not focus on that first?

In my experience, speaking on behalf of the Twin Towers Alliance at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s monthly board meetings, the citizens who prepare their remarks and then take the time from work to deliver a statement to the PA Commissioners are quite credible, very respectful, and well prepared. More often than not, what they are there to suggest would serve the public interest well if taken seriously.

The "opportunity" to find new solutions is there, but the Commissioners are clearly not interested in exploring it — even though they are political appointees who are spending the public’s money by the billions. Instead, as soon as the remarks are delivered, they vote on actions that were already decided in highly questionable executive sessions before citizens ever had a chance to make their comments.

They don’t even pretend that public opinion makes a difference. And they get away with it — as do pompous, know-it-all officials across the land. That is the first place that anyone who wants to promote muscular open meetings laws should look, instead of charging that those who make a sincere effort to address the issues are part of the problem.

When I clicked on the “gadflies” hyperlink I hoped to find some proof that you respect the concept. Instead the captions below the videos suggest that they were chosen to advance the assumption that gadflies are unhinged and self-serving — a far cry from the Platonic origin of the word. And as Orwell pointed out, the corruption of language is the corruption of thought.

Socrates paid with his life for his commitment “to sting people and whip them into a fury, all in the service of truth.” Persistence is what distinguishes a gadfly from a concerned citizen who shows up and makes a comment that no matter how worthwhile is easily ignored.

Another word for persistence is dedication. The conviction that it is everyone's civic duty to "fight City Hall” when required should be encouraged, not branded as counter-productive and somewhat loony. Whatever encourages more collaborative policymaking is welcome. But smearing those who speak up instead of condemning those who dismiss their input is a strange place to start.
I see some pros and cons of an update such as you suggest. On one hand, more public input is always good. Public officials should always seek to find out what is on their constituents' minds.

On the other hand, will participation in ways such as the article suggests, lead to public officials having to spend hours sifting through comments/suggestions made without adequate knowledge of the facts. We expect (though reality is often something else) our elected officials to spend time gathering facts from reports, research, testimony of people knowlegeable about the topic and hand, etc. and yes, the public through various forms of commentary.

However, does the average person who may want to suggest policy changes have the same access to this research, testimony, or reports - in order to make intelligent suggestions to the public officials?? That is the real question here.

"Believe it or not, we’re seeing glimpses of the new model in California cities you’d never expect: Bell and Vallejo."

You wrote a nice article and it's good to see a mention of Judge Brown.

But please, enough with the gratuitous us-versus-them slams. Bell and Vallejo are fighting back -- Bell particularly after being defrauded out of many millions of dollars by six dishonest elected officials.

The new small-town government at Bell deserves high praise. Sunshine Review gives them an A- rating.