Listening to the Public is Part of the Job of Serving the Public [OPINION]
There’s been a lot of discussion here and elsewhere about the Sioux Falls City Council’s debate and vote on Tuesday regarding the big $50 million parking ramp and hotel project planned for downtown.
Specifically, there’s been much made of Councilor Pat Starr’s attempt to vote present and then leaving the chamber when it was determined that’s not an option. Starr was trying to make a point after Mayor Mike Huether and Council Chairman Rick Kiley agreed to cut off public input.
My first point is this: Councilor Starr should have voted. That’s why he’s there.
But my second point is: He’s right. The increasingly unwillingness of Mayor Huether and some members of the council to listen patiently to the citizens of our city is disturbing.
Sure, it can be painful to sit and listen to one citizen after another come up and give their opinions. They can misinformed, or misguided or even painful to listen to. Tough. Put on your big boy pants and power through it.
The message from the mayor is clear – I don’t care what you think. Now, in the broad strokes I know that's not what he believes, but that's the message.
The councilors who go along with this are complicit in the message.
To Huether’s credit – and I have said this before – that in the weekly open mic period of the meetings, the mayor is courteous and gracious when he has to end people’s testimony.
It’s when there’s a major issue that draws significant public attention – such as this project – that it really goes off the rails.
This shouldn’t be that hard. You HAVE to allow public input in these matters if you expect buy-in from the public. People are watching, even when they are not there. The dismissive nature of this decision says if you don’t agree, you don’t get to talk, it’s that simple. You may think an hour is enough but if the people disagree then you’re wrong. That’s it.
The solution is out there and is standard practice in many public bodies. Set up a separate time for public input. It’s called a public hearing and it’s done all the time.
During my stint covering the Iowa Legislature in Des Moines, I spent many hours in the Capitol listening to citizens come and express themselves during hearings scheduled specifically for one issue or another. In one case – a taxpayer rights proposal that had been percolating for a few years – the testimony stretched across three consecutive evenings.
That’s clearly an extreme example but the lesson is self-evident. Give the people the time they demand, that they deserve.
When an issue arises that will attract more testimony than you think is practical for a regular meeting, schedule a separate time for public input.
Bring a beverage and some snacks.
Where comfortable clothes.
Sit your butt down and listen.
What happened at the City Council meeting on Tuesday wasn’t as tumultuous as people probably think. I’ve seen much worse. But it’s a disturbing trend in Sioux Falls city government.
It’s time for a change. We can do better.
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