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"People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything."

-- Thomas Sowell

What’s the point?

A proposal to shift the public comment period to the end of Washington County’s Quorum Court meetings, if it’s needed at all, should wait until after election season.

"If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'"

-- Dave Barry

Meetings, particularly in a business environment, can seem more a barrier to progress than a stimulator of action and ideas. Much in the way the great American philosopher Cosmo Kramer viewed his visit to a particular south Texas town ("El Paso, I spent a month there one night."), meetings can be a sort of reverse time machine, slowing everything down to an excruciating pace.

When it comes to governing, however, meetings are in the American DNA. The founding of the nation involved firearms, Minutemen and demands to be treated fairly by a distant king, to be sure, but it also was born of meetings -- first and second continental congresses and a convention lasting months to hash out the U.S. Constitution.

Government of, by and for the people isn't the most efficient way to accomplish anything. Dictatorships are far more efficient. But the greatness of the American experiment is the respect shown -- even if in principle more than in practice -- to the concept that Americans have, and deserve, a say in their local, state and federal government decision-making.

Particularly at the local level, such as Arkansas' city councils and county quorum courts, people show up to monitor their elected officials' work on public policy and, from time to time, offer comments as a way to influence those representatives invested with decision-making powers.

Here's where the "public comment period" in its many forms comes into play.

Whether at the city council, school board or quorum court meeting, most public bodies have some formal process by which "the people" can speak out, directly to their elected representatives. It comes, however, in many forms, usually with time limits to some degree necessary to help keep the meetings from becoming free-for-all shouting matches.

At a recent meeting of the Washington County Quorum Court, Justice of the Peace Lisa Ecke tossed out an idea to her 14 fellow county representatives: Let's move the public comment period, she suggested, from the start of the monthly meetings to the end.

"My purpose in moving the citizens comments is to stay focused on the agenda," Ecke explained. "The purpose of the Quorum Court is to have a discussion and to vote on the ordinances that are presented before us. At each ordinance, there is citizens' comments to address that particular ordinance, so you will still have your opportunity to make a comment on that ordinance.

"Hear me clearly. You're not being silenced. You have the opportunity within each ordinance. We will not take a vote unless we have citizens' comment."

Ecke said the Quorum Court ends up giving a half hour to 40 minutes at the beginning of meetings to public comment "rather than the purpose of our meeting," she said.

It may seem longer if someone isn't interested in what's being said, but Washington County's ordinance establishing the public comment period sets a maximum of 15 minutes, with each speaker getting up to three minutes. According to that ordinance, the period can go longer only if a majority of Quorum Court members vote to allow it.

Ecke's idea is a bad one, but Ecke certainly isn't the first to mess with public comments. The folks elected to local public bodies, collectively, seem to tinker around from time to time with how to "manage" public comments at their meetings -- and by "their" meetings, we really mean "our" meetings, as in the citizens.

Why mess with the public comment period? Historically, it's often been because some elected official doesn't much care for who is making use of the time slot within the public meeting. Back the early 2000s, the Quorum Court indeed had shifted the comment period to the end of the meeting. Folks who had been around county government for years recalled why: In an earlier form, election opponents would use the time to boost themselves and occasionally lob attacks at their incumbent opponents. Since the Quorum Court meetings are live-streamed, that's free publicity for a challenger.

Aren't we in an election year? Turns out we are. And it also turns out a frequent flyer at the Washington County Quorum Court public comment periods is Beth Coger, who has long advocated for reforms in the way the county handles its jail inmates. Oh, yeah, Coger also happens to be a Democrat who is running for the District 6 position on the Quorum Court.

District 6? That sounds familiar. Who holds that seat on the Quorum Court today?

Lise Ecke, who is also seeking re-election this year.

Maybe Ecke is only concerned about efficiency, but our advice? Let's leave the public comment period alone during the election season. If the efficiency issue is important enough to consider, it ought to wait until the discussion can stay focused on that rather than being clouded by question about political considerations.

Wisely, County Judge Joseph Wood suggested the Quorum Court send Ecke's proposal to committee, which is hopefully where it will remain through most of 2020.

Ultimately, though, the end-of-meeting public comment period would seem counterproductive. The idea is to give county residents a chance to speak to the entire governing body at once on a topic of their choosing. If a county resident has a complaint over, say, a planning issue, why make him sit through hours of other county business just to get his three-minute statement?

Public comment periods shouldn't be viewed as a distraction from the public's business. They should be embraced as an opportunity to hear from those folks who work hard, pay their taxes and just want to be heard on the mostly rare occasions when they need to speak up. It doesn't seem too much to ask of elected officials to listen, even if political challengers occasionally get to take advantage of the platform.

Opportunities for citizen comments remain fairly restricted by time limits that are necessary for running orderly meetings. Trying to bury them at the end of meetings, when most people -- including elected officials -- are just ready to go home does not serve the public well.

Commentary on 01/12/2020

Print Headline: Now or later?

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