Monday, February 1, 2010

Editorial: Make better use of 'call to public'

Befitting the regular Monday dump of press releases on the front page, here the unnamed Courier editor takes on a topic of kindergarten complexity -- public comments at City Council meetings -- and manages to live up to the challenge by saying pretty much nothing.

Windbags are a professional hazard of public meetings, and we have to face the fact that these opportunities exist every bit as much for the windbags as for anyone else.

Windbags do what they do because they don't feel they're being heard, either by the public officials they're addressing or by others in their daily lives. The only good way to reduce incidents of windbaggery is to build and resolutely reinforce a culture of caring respect, so people clearly understand that the officials aren't using the Council table as a wall between higher and lower classes, while reinforcing respect for the time of everyone in the room. But Council members must accept that windbaggery will happen on occasion, and they're drawing their pay in large part to put up with precisely that. Skilled leaders know that just expressing that they care to hear what the windbag is saying will reduce windbaggery by 20% out of the gate, and other leadership techniques can help a poor communicator get to the heart of what he wants to say and step down.

Even when those don't work, it's far better to have Council and the public put up with a windbag than to have the Mayor gaveling people off the podium to avoid hearing what they're saying, and the difference between worthwhile speech and windbaggery is in the ear of the beholder. The First Amendment does not say "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, unless it's boring or takes too long." Council must bear in mind at all times that they are elected to serve the public, not the other way around.

Note to editor: Where you wrote, "the presiding officer has the right to reign in a speaker," that should be "rein in." Given all the Western movies you so love to quote and our town's cowboy reputation, your readers expect you to know a little more about the terminology.

It could have happened