The inscription on the front of City Hall declares that the building is intended “for civic uses.”
The wording provides a strong sense that St. Joseph’s citizens expect a reasonable level of access to their city government, especially the elected members of the City Council. Just try getting a few words in during a session of Congress or the Missouri General Assembly. Anyone foolish enough to try is likely to be escorted from the premises by a large man sporting a blue blazer and an ear piece.
Your City Council is different. People are able to walk to the microphone and give their two cents on any issue facing the elected body.
In recent meetings, however, the council required a new step for those who wish to speak up at meetings. Members of the public now fill out comment cards with their name, address and reason for addressing the council.
This is done, as Mayor Bill McMurray told our reporter, in an effort to create a business-like atmosphere and make meetings run more smoothly. It has ruffled the feathers of some who believe the “speaker cards” limit back-and-forth discussion and make it necessary to read an entire agenda in advance, before the meeting.
There is nothing wrong with the council seeking to promote structure and decorum in the public comment aspects of its meetings. The mayor, to his credit, demonstrated fairness at a recent meeting when he allowed to council to determine whether one person could speak a second time on the same subject, in violation of rules. The council gave its assent.
This causes us to believe the council’s motives are pure, but these city officials should nevertheless avoid being sticklers for the new rules.
At the very least, the council should officially eliminate a requirement — which hasn’t been enforced — requiring cards to be filled out prior to a meeting. If something comes up that sparks a need for comment or clarification, a member of the public shouldn’t feel hindered.
The bigger problem isn’t the use of comment cards but a stated goal for meetings to operate in a more business-like atmosphere. To some, that might sound like a more sanitized atmosphere, one that doesn’t give a true impression of how people feel about a certain issue.
At some point, council members should tune in to C-SPAN to watch the prime minister’s question time in Britain’s Parliament. It is anything but business-like, but one could argue that it’s an effective airing of ideas. Perhaps a little give-and-take may even get more people to watch St. Joseph’s council meetings on cable access or a streaming device.
So keep the rules, if you must, but understand that the council should err whenever possible on the side of freewheeling discussion.