Let ’em speak

Res­i­dents should have chance be­fore City Coun­cil

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE -

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.

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