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Officials shouldn't try to tune out vox populi

Talk about your bad public relations, if you happen to be an elected official who wants to stay that way.

You sit up there in the rarefied air of the dais and give folks below the distinct impression they should hush. Or at least not talk so much. Can't you people see we're trying to work here?

The Tampa City Council recently took up the idea of being able to nix public comment at monthly workshops, their more informal discussion sessions.

Council members Mary Mulhern and Tom Scott seemed to like the idea of being able to opt out of allowing the public to speak out at workshops, since there are regular meetings at which citizens can have their say.

"We could not have a discussion where we weren't having the public pressuring us," said Mulhern, who, by the way, ran as a populist candidate. She told the audience at the meeting she was happy to hear what they had to say. But, she said, "I don't need to hear it three times."

Putting aside the idea that public input equals "pressure," this did appear to be a genuine effort to operate more efficiently. But in politics, public perception is everything. And it sure didn't send a vote of confidence to those already cynical about whether anyone up there is listening.

So it was good to see activists stand up to have their say at the meeting that day (it not being a workshop and all). We want to voice our concerns when the issue's in the talking stages, they said. We're appalled you'd even think of taking away a chance for us to be heard, they said. The City Council sure was starting to sound like another board that infamously tried to restrict public comment on a major environmental issue last year — the Hillsborough County Commission. (That one stung a little.)

Council member Charlie Miranda got the prize for pragmatism when he questioned the usefulness of some workshops in the first place ("We have workshops (on) what time is the sun going to rise," he said). And John Dingfelder sensibly pointed out that to voters, a meeting is a meeting is a meeting even when you call it a workshop.

So in the face of citizens who were paying attention, the board voted unanimously — and wisely — to set aside 30 minutes per workshop for public comment.

To her credit, Mulhern later said she did not speak well that day. But she said again she didn't want to hear the same thing from the same people over and over again.

Maybe not. Maybe it can be inefficient and tedious and redundant. It's also an important requirement of the job they elected you to do.

In a bill that could have been written for last week's meeting, state lawmakers are considering the possibility of public officials going deaf, so to speak. (That is, when the gang in Tallahassee's not busy deciding critical issues like whether we should be allowed to ride around with replicas of a bull's unmentionables hanging from the trailer hitches of our pickup trucks, though maybe that's a fitting symbol for a place that refuses to get rid of a state song about "de old plantation" and likes the idea of us toting our guns to work.)

The Voice of the People Act would require local governments to allow at least 15 minutes of public comment at each meeting.

Too bad we need a law to remind elected officials to listen to the folks who put them there.

Officials shouldn't try to tune out vox populi 04/22/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 22, 2008 7:50pm]
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