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ROUND TABLE: Gettin’ civic with it, 15 seconds at a time

Here’s a formula for public involvement, one that goes against the revered First Amendment but is worth making to raise a point.

First of all, every citizen is entitled to three minutes of comment anytime he or she wants to speak to an elected body.

The way it works with most public meetings is you sign up on the clipboard and speak your 180 seconds or less, sit down and give the next person the podium.

So here is the radical idea: Every time any citizen attends any public meeting, they receive an additional 15 seconds redeemable for any future public comment period. Every time you attend you get 15 more seconds to speak. You don’t have to speak; just attend.

This way, everyone gets a chance to talk, but regular attendance earns you more time.

(You could get carried away with rules, but here are three modest ones: One person can accrue a maximum of five minutes — you gotta have limits — and the time is not transferable. Also: no signing in and then sneaking out. And your five minutes revert to the basic three every year. Okay, that’s four rules, so moving on ... )

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It is unworkable, of course, but the idea was inspired by the roomful of people at Wednesday’s special meeting of City Council, where a few familiar faces (thank you, Brent Foster and Bob Palmer) held court, but lots of other newcomers either attended or spoke.

Again, let there be no doubt that everyone — resident, property owner, non-resident or visiting Estonian — has the right to speak. That is the basis of our democratic society.

In the case of Wednesday’s meeting, and Monday’s, comments included specific defenses and praises for Bob Francis, and particular gripes and assertions about other public servants, elected and otherwise. Some were better informed than others.

The fact is, many of those in the room had either never attended a council meeting, or not for a very long time. Some owned up to that. No one has to explain their presence or absences; attendance at public meetings is not, in itself, a test of Virtuous Citizenship.

Some of those folks might be counted as regulars at school board, port, the county commission, or their local water or fire district boards. Well, not many, but that is not the point. People serve their communities in plenty of ways that do not involve attending “boring public meetings.” (They are, usually, but not always, boring — and are often exciting, but again, that is not the point.)

What bears noting is that many comments were made at the last two meetings about people in government, actions taken or not taken, policies considered or adopted, attitudes reflected and opinions expressed or not expressed. These claims were in many cases made, with varying degrees of accuracy, by people who had never or not for years darkened the halls of city hall.

No offense to anyone in particular; there can be no questioning motivations for coming out to show support for Bob Francis (and based on the loud applause at nine or 10 points, there was extensive support.) Again, that is not the point.

The point is that while many people came to this particular council meeting, most had either rarely or never attended any previous meeting. Americans don’t do meetings.

In this reporter’s memory of 35 years covering local government, people used to attend meetings just to stay informed. Sometimes they had an interest in one thing on the agenda, and they might or might not stay for the rest of the menu, but people did attend.

I recall when not a few people would come for no particular reason, just to see what was happening. That is rarely the case anymore. So, as sad as that may be, few-or-no-members-of-the-public is the new norm at most meetings: as such, no one can be criticized for not making a regular practice (or even an occasional one) of not attending a meeting of a local board or commission.

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And so back to the opening radical notion: why not give a reward for attendance? Other than retreats and special occasions, government can’t provide refreshments, let alone door prizes. And “beer for my horses and whiskey for my men” was once an acceptable way of forming a posse — but cannot be used to rally neighbors to a planning commission meeting.

(Okay, cookies and coffee are regularly provided in the back of the room at school board meetings, but that’s provided by parent groups or private donations.)

That’s why I suggest that the incentive for more time to speak. Again, it’s a free country, so anyone gets their three minutes, the standard per-person testimony. Show up for four more meetings and you can have a whole ‘nuther minute to rail against the system, later in the year. Come on a regular basis and you get five minutes. What an incentive! Never mind that — this reporter excluded — after 45 seconds most people start to tune you out.

In all seriousness, for those of us with long memories of public attendance at meetings, recalling when at least a small audience was typical, the current norm of zero-to-no one can be kind of depressing. Granted, it was a welcome sight to see 125 people fill city hall on Wednesday, and another 75 or so on Monday. This was to be expected for such a Hot Button Issue, but what will it take to get even a fraction of those people back on a regular basis?

Answers include free beer, not enough wind, and less must-see TV. To all those who found the two hours on Wednesday, I am sure that everyone involved at council felt inside them a hope that something like that high attendance might be repeated, even when the agenda is a box of Luke Warm Buttons.

So how about it? If not 15 seconds of fame, 15 seconds of extra time?

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