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‘Y’ people can’t listen at city council meetings

Posted: December 15, 2011 11:04 a.m.
Updated: December 16, 2011 5:00 a.m.

The sports complex issue raged on at the last City Council meeting. Both the public and members of City Council decried the inability for one another to “hear” what they were saying.

I believe the problem is not in the messages or a “hearing” problem. The messages are delivered with equal fervor, beliefs and volume, but the root cause of the problem is in how City Council meetings are designed.  

Simply put, City Council meetings are not designed for dialogue. City Council meetings are designed for stating opinions. Opinions without dialogue are seeds for creating fanatics. And as Churchill put it, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” And now we’ve got City Council meetings held for fanatics, myself included, and for the entertainment of the community and, with the presence of WIS-TV, an even larger audience.

If you’ve never been to a City Council meeting, let me tell you how it goes. The meeting is called to order and awards/recognition ceremonies follows. Then it’s on to the “Public Forum.” Citizens are allowed to speak by signing up on a roster. But this portion of the meeting is strictly limited to 30 minutes. If there are six or less citizens wishing to speak, individuals get five minutes. If there are more than six speakers, individuals get three minutes. I think there are only 10 slots to sign up for. So if you’re number 11, there’s always next time.

And as I discovered at my last foray into the “public forum,” before you can make your statement, you’ve got to state your name, address, and if you’re a City resident / registered voter, and the clock is ticking when you’re stating this requisite preamble. So the “three minute” window you’ve timed your remarks for to the second, is actually less than three minutes. In this time you’ve got two choices: speak very rapidly, (my favorite ploy), or perhaps limit content you’d really like to expand on. If you have planned on a full five minutes and didn’t bring a backup three minute version, good luck.

You make your statement … and get no response from Council. (Perhaps you get noise from the public galley behind you, but nothing from Council. Kind of like throwing a rock into mud. You see and hear the splash, but when you look back, there’s not a trace.)

While the Public Forum Guidelines clearly state on the back of every Camden City Council meeting agenda, “The public forum … is not a time for Council to respond or debate with the public,” it does seem at times you’ve been simply ignored. Because other than a curt “thank you” for the remarks, nothing. No reaction, no reply, nothing.

In customer service training, it’s pretty standard to respond to a compliant with “I hear what you’re saying but let me make sure I’ve got it right, you’re telling me (and your paraphrase what was said to make sure you do have it right!)” as you start a dialogue to come to a mutually agreeable resolution of the complaint.

But that’s not what happens in City Council meetings. Rather, as exemplified by the last meeting when Council was presented again with a citizen petition to stop building the proposed sports complex, Council withdraws with the City Attorney behind closed doors, only to re-emerge and have each Council Member state their individual opinions, (if the galley “boos” count as feedback, then, yes, there is perhaps dialogue, albeit not particularly constructive dialogue). Council members, incidentally, have no timer running to cut off their remarks. “Unfair!” cries Citizens. Well, it’s Council Rules, so it is what it is.

This way, everybody (Citizens and Council Members) is now incredibly frustrated and angry and can say “why aren’t you listening?!!”

Everyone now can retreat, restrategize, reload, and prepare for another assault on the people “who can’t listen” on still yet another City Council D-Day in two weeks.

No dialogue.

 The opening line of this epistle actually started out as “The sports complex debate raged on…” but I couldn’t use “debate” because it hasn’t ever been a debate. And it’s never been a dialogue.

In one Councilman's remarks, I got the feeling he didn’t appreciate letters to the editor, blogs, and Facebook postings about the sports complex issue. My perspective is these are all forums for “debate” since there is no other public forum for actual oral debate. Opinion letters can bat back and forth like a slow tennis volley, Facebook and blog postings can be responded to almost immediately like the electronic “Pong” game they resemble. Camden needs dialogue.

Next to expenditures for a waste water treatment facility, the proposed sports complex is the largest expense ever for the City of Camden. If there was ever a reason to have meaningful, respectful, non-fanatic dialogue in our fair town, I am at a loss to find one.

The multiplicity of factors hinging on this “YMCA issue” is so complex it’s virtually impossible to express or develop perspectives in five, let alone three minutes.

YMCA or private management of a city property. Projected costs of a sports complex. Best use of Hospitality Tax revenue. Choice of size of project. Changes to Camden since plans were first drawn up for “progress.” Definition of “progress!” Who “Camden” really wants to be? These issues all require dialogue, not one way opinions. These decisions require "town hall meetings" with questions and answers. And it's OK to say "I don't know" to a question, or "Well, I haven't thought of that."

These kind of critical decisions are not made first by committees. We don't elect leaders expecting them to have all the answers but rather to understand collective intelligence by a large number of citizens can create topics to be studied and addressed by committee in detail and then reported back to citizens for more input. And these decisions can be expected to evolve in time depending on evolutionary social, financial, and political pressures.

In response to the invariable “The public forum … is not a time for Council to respond or debate with the public,” my question is simple. When is a time for Council to respond or debate with the public?

When can the public respond and debate/dialogue with comments such as (paraphrasing) “we have not raised taxes” (ahem, what’s the 2 cents extra on the dollar I pay when I buy a Big Mac?); “We have enough money to build it but not to run it” (What???!); or my favorite from last night, “(We were elected to) make decisions for you, er … with you.” I’m not citing these to simply fuel the flames of anger, but only to point out these statements from Council do need someone to say, “Wait a minute, what do you really mean by that?” and to address "outright lies" that some Councilman feel the public tells.

If there is a "lie" stated, a relatively common event as cited by Politi-Fact-Check in politics, a dialogue will serve to pull out the real intent of the speaker and clarification may help in determining "truth" from different perspectives.

But here are two questions I had after attending the recent City Council meeting:

• Are the Mayor and City Councilmen elected to make decisions with the people, or for the people?

• If elected to make decisions with the people, how can you do that without dialogue?

 There are elements of truth on all sides of almost all arguments. But only through dialogue can the truths of both sides be honored by a higher solution.

Anytime an opinion is stated, if there’s a “Yeah, but…” response by the listener, it’s a call for dialogue. Back and forth in a civil manner. In a manner than honors the “truths” on both sides.

And let me answer my own question posed above as a demonstration of an offhand comment that was absolutely polarizing to an angry galley of citizens and caused an outburst at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, “Are the Mayor and City Councilmen elected to make decisions for the people, or with the people?” The speaker obviously recognized the misstep and corrected it before the statement was fully out of his mouth, but the damage was done. An angry reaction followed. I was angered at the statement, but on reflection, I actually felt sorry for the speaker’s misstep. But when you're in battle, and keeping score, the speaker lost a point. So what's the answer?

I think the answer is simply, both. Ideally, elected officials vote their own conscience because they were voted into office by a majority of constituents perhaps because they best represented the opinions of those who voted for them from other choices. Once elected, Mayors and Councilmen have no obligation to listen to anyone. But if they are making decisions with the people, Mayors and Councilmen are obliged to have constructive dialogue. To make sure what they might perceive as their elected mandate was, still is. To make sure what they thought was perfectly clear, (and remains still clear in their own mind), is really what the public perceived initially.

In surgery, we call this “informed consent.” I tell a patient, “You need an operation.” The patient says, “OK.” I then outline the problem the patient has and the proposed procedure, along with risk, benefits and options. Then things change. “I didn’t know I could die! … what else can we do?” Back to a discussion of the problem, potential solutions, risks and benefits. Sometimes, after informed consent, patients elect to decline surgery altogether. That’s OK. Because it’s the patient’s choice. My job as a physician was to present information, potential solutions, and after informed consent is reached, proceed with what I thought was most appropriate for the patient. Sometimes a second opinion is requested. That’s OK, too. Because it helps the patient, and family, be happier with the ultimate decision and potential adverse outcomes. The patient’s needs are served ultimately. Sometimes by me, sometimes by another surgeon, sometimes without surgery.

So when elected officials feel mandated to carry out “surgery” they promised during an election campaign or years ago, unless informed consent is obtained before the actual surgery, it might not happen. Circumstances and the degree of understanding of what an action may entail up to the point of surgery are changeable. It rarely happened to me professionally, but I’ve had surgery almost and actually cancel in the pre-op holding area.

Additionally, a consent form must be signed within a time limit to the surgery. If I remember correctly, I think it was a week before. A consent obtained a month ago would have to be re-signed. Simply because things change.

I think the sports complex is in a pre-op phase and fully informed consent is still absent. Consent may have been felt to have been obtained in the past, but it's not valid for the present. It’s absent because of a lack of back and forth civil dialogue to work with the public in decision making as time and circumstances dictate.

It doesn’t have to always be either/or. It’s not always us or them. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have, “all of us together,” that will come to a higher solution.

Do we need a replacement to Rhame Arena? Certainly. The higher solution will be found by examining needs, desires, and affordability in the context of the current economy and how it affects all others who might have complimentary perspectives on best H-tax usage. “Complimentary” is a better word than “opposing” perspectives in dialogue. Complimentary assumes there is truth in many perspectives.

The determination of the individuals who have collected the signatures of Camden citizens to hold a referendum is in part based on honoring the intentions of citizens who signed their name and will eventually result in a petition, (perhaps a new one if legal technicalities cause the present one to be rejected), even if it means the well-intentioned presenting citizens have to “lawyer-up" to counter "legally" based rejections of Council. 

As a higher solution, could all parties decide to postpone “surgery” until true open dialogue resulting in fully informed consent can be obtained from the citizens of Camden? It may just result in no petition being needed and save a lot time, money, and emotion.

Without thoughtful dialogue, we'll never see real "progress."

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