Let ’em speak
Residents should have chance before City Council
Contrary to a popular adage, you can fight city hall. You just need the right battle plan and the tools to execute it.
Those tools include, but are not limited to, standing in front of the members of a city’s governing board and giving them a piece of your mind. In Northwest Arkansas, using that particular tool is easier in some locales than in others.
For example, to address Bentonville’s City Council, a citizen must sign up to do so before the meeting and address a topic already listed on the formal agenda. Getting something added the the agenda is ultimately up to the mayor and council members.
Bentonville Alderman James Smith wants to loosen things up a bit.
He’s proposed ways to make it easier for items to be added for discussion in order to allow citizens more chances to speak directly to the council.
There’s an appealing all-inclusive simplicity to his thinking.
Bentonville’s mayor, Bob McCaslin, thinks citizens have plenty of opportunities to be heard. First and foremost, McCaslin rightly points out citizens are free to talk to city staff and alderman at any time (outside of formal council meetings) about things that concern them. Contact information for the entire council and the mayor and his staff are readily available online. McCaslin also correctly points out that the city invites public input and debate frequently at everything from neighborhood meetings to public hearings to a quarterly “committee of the whole” session of the council.
Though he’s not openly opposing Smith’s proposal, McCaslin wants people to know he thinks the city gives them ample opportunity to be heard.
The mayor makes some good points, all right. Certainly no one can say information about getting in touch with the council, the mayor or his staff is hard to find. We can also attest that Bentonville’s mayor and staff are very receptive to our newspaper’s questions and work hard at getting us the answers we need.
No one can accuse Bentonville of not being transparent.
But even though there are already ways to communicate with Bentonville municipal government, nothing we’ve seen makes it impractical or unattractive to add a few more, including allowing folks to address the council directly during a meeting on a topic not originally on the agenda. We’ll be the first to say that any citizen who wants to get something done (or, for that matter, undone) by city government needs to do more than just show up at a council meeting and complain.
All those steps Mayor McCaslin described — contacting city staff, the mayor, the individual council members — are likely much more effective ways to be heard than a meeting night surprise.
Participating in a neighborhood meetings or public hearing is also an excellent way to stay ahead of the knowledge curve and have influence on what city government is doing.
However, when a citizen has a complaint, concern, criticism or comment for the powers that be, there’s no better place to voice it than in a regular council meeting. Even when a Bentonville resident has gone through all the other steps and spoken to all the people officialdom has to offer, he or she still ought to be able to lean into the microphone in a public setting and say what is on his or her mind. Perhaps, just perhaps, that’s the best place to apply the pressure of a citizen’s voice in the governmental process.
Efficient? Probably not. Reflective of the American ideal of selfrule? Absolutely. Bentonville has nothing to lose allowing this, except maybe a little time that it has to spare.