Council, Madore wrangle over citizen comments

Public input at meetings likely to be preserved, slightly altered

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Vancouver businessman and NoTolls.com financier David Madore called on the Vancouver City Council on Monday to not shut down citizen communication and agreed to remove a video of the infamous “Gavel down” incident involving Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilor Jeanne Harris from his website if some open mic opportunities for off-agenda comments are preserved.

The council had earlier in the evening coalesced around a plan to limit comment on non-agenda items to twice-a-month at the conclusion of meetings, effectively turning quarterly town halls into bi-weekly affairs that would feature up to 90 minutes of public comment, three minutes per speaker, and a half-hour allotted for councilors to mingle with meeting attendees. Comment on agenda items would take place at the beginning of all meetings.

The council has not finalized reforms to its citizen communication system, but reached parameters for consensus on a new format during a workshop before the regular meeting. The council hopes to finalize a policy Monday, but will not formally vote until a later date.

“Thank you for compromising, for stepping in the right direction,” Madore said after having learned of the foundation of the council’s plan.

Madore called on Leavitt to apologize for telling The Columbian he had been spurred to reform citizen’s communication by “threatening and intimidating” behavior by some members of the council audience.

Responding to Madore’s call for an apology and toning down rhetoric, Leavitt told Madore, “It’s a two-way street.”

During a brief engagement between the council and Madore following the businessman’s testimony, Harris asked Madore to take the video of her outburst off the NoTolls.com website. Harris said she has received more than 3,000 hate e-mails.

“It was one day where I lost my temper, and I’ve apologized, and I’m apologizing again,” Harris said. “I would ask that you take it down off your website and take it down off your e-mail list.”

Madore said he would remove the video if the council preserves open communication at least twice a month.

“This was not about you and it was not about me,” Madore said of the exchange that led Harris to tell Leavitt to “Gavel him down. Gavel down.”

Added Madore: “This was about a dysfunctional process, of citizens not allowed to participate.”

Councilor Jack Burkman admonished Madore for perpetuating that exchange on the website. “I ask you to stop pushing the video without conditions,” Burkman said at the close of the meeting.

During the workshop, only Councilor Jeanne Stewart expressed reluctance to move away from the current system, which allows speakers to talk for three minutes on any subject they choose during citizen communications at the end of each Monday’s meeting.

“I think it’s a mistake to do anything that begins to restrict the opportunities for people to give us direct feedback,” Stewart said during the council workshop.

Among other adjustments likely to be included when the council finalizes its policy for citizen communications are provisions for residents to ask questions, and council members to answer or respond, and for all discussions to be carried on CVTV, a local public affairs channel available on Comcast.

“The other thing that was important is to televise these sessions,” said Councilor Larry Smith, who added that he hoped doing so would increase “accountability.”

The council took up reforming citizen communication, according to Leavitt, following complaints from several people who said they faced a gauntlet of various comments, stares and other forms of intimidation from those in the audience.

Commentary regarding the Columbia River Crossing, particularly from employees and supporters of Madore’s NoTolls.com, has become a near staple of council meetings. The city does not direct the bistate project, but is a participating agency. A handful of the about 50 people who attended Monday’s meeting wore navy T-shirts that said “I Survived City Hall” on the front and “Gavel Down” on the back.

Commenters expressed appreciation for the council’s willingness to make public communication more of a two-way conversation. “Many people have asked for that exchange and we’re going to afford that opportunity,” Leavitt said.