Scripts are for plays, movies, and TV shows where the plot, including the outcome, is laid out ahead of time. Public hearings aren't supposed to be scripted.
After all, what's the point of inviting citizens to express their opinions on an issue if members of a government body -- in this case, the Salem City Council -- have already made up their minds?
But as you can read below, this was the reaction of several people who attended last Wednesday's City Council hearing on a proposed new police facility: Mayor Peterson and the eight city councilors weren't open to new ideas or fresh arguments. The outcome of the meeting had been determined ahead of time just as surely as a movie production following a script.
(I wrote about my testimony at the hearing in "To save lives, in November vote NO on Salem police facility bond .")
I agree. I've attended lots of Salem City Council meetings. I've testified at many of them.
It feels weird to spend three minutes speaking passionately about an issue I deeply care about, see the red light come on at the podium (indicating that my time is up), and then almost always be met with... utter silence. No reaction, other than the Mayor uttering her habitual "Thank you for your testimony."
Disturbingly, at the past few public hearings I've attended it has been the official policy of the City Council to forbid councilors from asking questions of citizens who testify, or commenting on what they said.
This seems decidedly wrong to me.
The way it works now, at the beginning of the meeting Mayor Peterson announces that after hearing public testimony (which can go on for hours) with no questions allowed after a person speaks, the City Council will ask questions of staff. Only after that happens can councilors ask questions of citizens who testified.
By that late time on a midweek work night, many of those citizens have left for home. So the emphasis isn't on the Mayor and city councilors listening to people who care about an issue, learning more about what they think and why they feel that way, and then possibly changing one's mind about the issue.
Instead, a Salem City Council public hearing is about going through the technicalities required by Oregon law, then doing what, pretty clearly, was decided before the meeting started. As the comments below point out, motions for the City Council to take a specific action appear suddenly, all written out ahead of time.
Discussion of the motion usually is perfunctory. The Mayor and city councilors aren't even open to having their minds changed by each other, much less members of the public.
This is way different than I'm used to here in our local neighborhood "government," the board of directors of Spring Lake Estates Recreational Properties, Inc. -- which is responsible for overseeing the common property in our rural south Salem development.
I've been the board secretary for over twenty years. It'd be a lot easier for me to write up the meeting minutes if decisions -- such as how to handle excessive weeds in the lake -- were determined by board members ahead of time.
Instead, because those who serve on the board act like normal human beings rather than politicians, we give any property owner who comes to the meeting all the time they want to talk about an issue. Then everybody discusses the subject -- sometimes heatedly.
In the end, often board members decide to do something quite different from what they originally favored. This is the way decisions should be made by a group: openly, being receptive to new ideas and information, not bound by preconceived notions.
Which is the opposite of how the Salem City Council handles important issues.
There's very little opportunity for citizens to engage City officials in a back-and-forth conversation, or debate. Every indication is that decisions are "wired" before the meeting starts. Hopefully this will change in 2017, when a new Mayor and three new city councilors join the City Council.
Groupthink needs to be made a City Council no-no. Currently there's a lot of pressure from the Mayor, and some councilors, to enforce unanimity -- even when a majority has made a very weak case. I was surprised at the last meeting to even hear the most progressive councilor, Tom Andersen, vote for a motion that he tried unsuccessfully to amend after saying "I understand the need for a unanimous vote."
Huh? How about the need for a wise vote? I'd rather see members of the City Council stand up for what they think is right, and be on the short end of an 8-1 vote, than go along with a bad decision just to make the vote unanimous.
Here's the content of a recent post on the Salem Community Vision Facebook page about last Wednesday's meeting/hearing. Comments on the post from two people follow.
THE FULL MEAL DEAL IT IS!
Last night the Salem City Council unanimously directed staff to go forward with an $82,088,000 bond measure for the November ballot. After making the motion, Council President Steve McCoid made these remarks. "I'm convinced that a full meal deal is the way to go," said McCoid. Councilor Tom Andersen made motions to downsize the project and reduce the cost, but his motions failed for lack of a second. The bond measure will be for everything recommended by the DLR group — a 148,000 square foot facility including the regional 9-1-1 center, a community room and a double-decked parking garage.
We will obviously have much more to say about this, but here we would like to hear your comments. What do you think? Was the "full meal deal" the way to go? Can it possibly pass in November? Please comment below.
Susann Kaltwasser commented:
At the hearing it was clear that the mayor had recruited a number of Chamber people and other friends to speak in favor and praise the council...how could you tell? Well, on the sign in sheet one person wrote down about 6 people's names and they all sat together on the benches near the wall chatting amongst themselves. It was also clear that this was a set up for the cameras. Also, no questions from the council were allowed.
When everyone was done with their testimony, the mayor asked [Councilor] McCoid to enter a pre-written motion and staff had a presentation all ready to go on how much they could tax the public. After that it all just fell in place. I left because I could not take the dog and pony show that was scripted before hand. No deliberation took place in the open meeting. It was all choreographed for the cameras. Going through the motions after they had made the deal behind the scenes.
And Geoffrey James added this comment:
Yes, totally scripted. Chamber folks got there half hour early and locked the door. Signed up entire group with addresses that all just said "97302". So they got to speak first. The pre-scripted motion was promptly ready to go, after the few others testified. The super sized full meal deal was ready to go, pre-scripted and was voted on unanimously by robots. COC is Chamber. CCC is Chamber City Council. There is no discernible difference, but there will start to be, beginning in January 2017.