Policies adopted this week by the Vancouver City Council to regulate public comments at council meetings are more than fair. The rules also maximize public participation, and that is one bedrock principle of the public arena that warrants robust protection.
City councilors and critics have long wrangled over rules governing public comments at the meetings. On Monday night, by a 6-1 vote the council approved several rules. Prior to each regular council meeting, citizen communications will be held on items that appear on that night’s agenda. Each citizen is allowed approximately three minutes. Additionally, twice monthly, citizens will be allowed to speak on any topic during a 90-minute forum.
The rules are necessary to allow a maximum number of citizens to speak in a limited amount of time. To set no restriction whatsoever on the length of a public meeting is simply not practical. To allow a citizen to speak virtually unendingly is unfair to others who are waiting to speak. And to allow people to speak biweekly on topics of their choice is reasonable.
Last month, City Councilor Jeanne Stewart (the lone dissenter in Monday night’s vote) was quoted in a Columbian story: “I think it’s a mistake to do anything that begins to restrict the opportunities for people to give us direct feedback.” Really? Anything?
A different perspective is proffered by Washington state’s 40-year-old Open Public Meetings Act, one of the most cherished and powerful documents in a state that is known far and wide for promoting the democratic process. According to Chapter 3.4 G of the act: “The OPMA does not require a governing body to allow everyone to speak at a public meeting. A governing body has significant authority to limit the time of speakers to a uniform amount (such as three minutes)” — those parentheses are the act’s and not The Columbian’s — “or to not allow anyone to speak. Other laws might require the governing body to allow the public to speak at a public meeting, but the OPMA does not.” Vancouver City Attorney Ted Gathe said in a Tuesday interview that the OPMA is “the overarching document governing public meetings in the state.”
Although we support the rules as necessary, let us also point out that, in the interest of a public process, these meetings will be more comfortable for all when the rules don’t have to be enforced. Leadership needs to be exercised, and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt has been correctly critical of himself for allowing the confusion to grow regarding public comments. These rules might seem to fortify his authority, but the best leader at the best public meetings is inclusive, inviting and encouraging. If Leavitt occasionally errs on the side of freedom of speech, that’s acceptable.
By the same token, those who speak most often at public meetings should remember the benefits of following the rules, or at least not straying too far from them. We suspect public participation will increase if the rules are followed; more people would show up if they know the meetings are run efficiently. And that would be a very good thing.
This issue might have been difficult or uncomfortable for city council members or for some of the busiest activists, but we see it as a glorious manifestation of democracy in action. A resolution was reached in a thoroughly vetted way that might not be perfect, but is fair. So let the public interaction intensify, and in ways that include the most participants and the most attentive public officials.