Making Meetings Public-Friendly

Contributed by: Ann Hinch on 12/29/2006


New year's resolutions are about betterment. Sure, it's January and presumably, past time for making these promises to oneself. But there's no time limit on improving local government.

If individuals can resolve to improve themselves, why shouldn't governmental bodies? There are a few ways public meetings could be more welcoming to those who live in Loudon County and its cities:

TIME LIMITS: It's not unusual to impose time limits for speakers, but it could be longer at Lenoir City council meetings. There's a three-minute rule imposed on several attendees who want to complain about something, but I can't remember the last time it was enforced on someone who wanted to thank the city.

I understand that night meetings come after a long day of work for those of us who aren't retired, including the mayor and some councilmen. But fostering participatory government occasionally takes more than three minutes.

If the room is bursting to full on some hot issue, imposing a shorter time limit on each person may be fair. I've seen instances, though, where it was only one person who wanted to address a fairly important matter, cut off before they could finish asking questions.

How does this encourage public participation? Not every taxpayer is a professional speaker or writer. For some, it's difficult enough to muster enough gumption to stand before a bunch of people and disagree, without being sent back to one's seat feeling shut down because they haven't mastered the art of sharp, concise language.

These people aren't always eloquent, but they do pay the bills and they also care what happens in their town. Some things can't be crammed into three minutes. The unspoken social contract is that citizens should be respectful ... and governors should be receptive.

COMMENTS: At every public meeting, there is the chance before business begins for citizens to speak up about items on the agenda. It might be better to allow comments and questions as each issue comes up. The times I've seen this practiced at the Loudon County Air Quality Task Force meetings, it seems to foster better dialogue between those attending and those sitting behind the big desk up front.

Perhaps comments are taken at the beginning to give officials time to consider new information. But if an officeholder is really unsure whether to change his or her vote based on a comment - whether thinking on it for five minutes or 30 - maybe that matter should wait until the next meeting anyway.

AGENDAS: These are tough to get from some offices, despite state law requiring them to be available within a certain time before any public meeting. Especially with the ease of e-mail and websites, there should be no excuse for someone not being able to get an agenda at least one business day before a meeting.