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Anyone with important business before the Fayetteville City Council -- and few unimportant things end up before any city's governing body -- had better hope, first and foremost, that their business doesn't fall near the end of the meeting's agenda.

Falling somewhere in the middle of Fayetteville's agenda, even, doesn't guarantee the matter will be heard while minds are fresh. By the time a 5:30 p.m. public meeting presses on to 10 p.m., 11 p.m. or even beyond midnight, is it even possible for council members to give an issue full attention or to fully analyze the pros and cons of a matter? Who wants a matter decided or even affected by exasperation?

What’s the point?

Managing the time spent listening to public input at City Council meetings is a tough balance leaders in Fayetteville are trying to figure out.

Sure, sometimes it's tempting to discount any grousing by members of the City Council about lengths of meetings. After all, they asked for residents' votes, in most instances, and in any case asked for the job. It comes with the territory, right?

Well, sort of. Not every city's governing body requires four, five or six hours on a Tuesday night to get their work done. Then again, every city isn't Fayetteville, where for as long as we and plenty of folks who came before us can remember, the community has appeared to appreciate process as much as the end result.

Maybe it's because it's a college town, which Fayetteville has been since 1871. In the academic world, process and collective reasoning are valued: Getting to the answer fast isn't nearly as important as getting to the right answer.

Sooner or later, though, something's got to give. The whole idea behind Robert's Rules of Order is development of a reliable process by which group decisions are made possible and efficient.

Fayetteville City Council member Matthew Petty recently suggested something, indeed, has got to give. He proposed reducing time allotted for each speaker from the public from five minutes to three.

City Council meetings have been known to see 20 or 30 people addressing controversial issues. For every dozen who decide to speak, that's an extra hour in the meeting if everyone uses their full five minutes. And a lot of people do.

So it's not unusual for the first idea to have something to do with public comment. Limiting people to three minutes would shave 24 minutes off that 12-speaker scenario.

We'd suggest, too, that council members examine their own practices. Time and again, it seems Fayetteville's eight elected City Council members all feel a need to give their own speeches on many votes. Sometimes, the speech helps plow up fertile ground for compromises or new ideas. Other times, the speeches don't add much new. Sometimes, we're told, knowing when to say when is important.

This is all a difficult balancing act. The City Council needs to hear from constituents. Constituents need to be part of the problem-solving for their community. One has to wonder if the city's system of committees is working to its highest purpose. Should more work -- and more public comment -- happen in those committees? It would certainly take a strong effort by city leaders to ensure the public knows when to show up.

Some responsibility for these out-of-control talkfests have to end up at the mayor's gavel. The mayor runs the meeting. Some mayors run meetings with an eye toward efficiency. Others just let things happen and defer to the full city council to set the rules. After all, what mayor really wants the job of limiting public comment? How unpopular might that be? But it, likewise, is the job. There's a fine line between limiting public comment in a fashion that's unfriendly to public involvement and doing so in a way that's simply helping the meeting along. Sometimes, a mayor needs to say "OK, we're going to hear from two more people, then we're going to determine our course of action."

What's to be appreciated in Fayetteville is how the public is part of the legislative process, with an opportunity for input on each measure under consideration. What we really don't like is the practice at some city and county public meetings that forces the public to speak only at the beginning of the meeting, forcing them to stay quiet when decision-making time approaches. It leaves little room for the public to react to new information. And, inevitably, the voting members of the public body don't interact with the public, looking instead like an elite group sitting in some ivory tower.

So, what's the answer? It can't be trying to please everyone, but it also must guard against shutting down valuable communication between elected officials and the people they serve.

We recommend people engage their elected representatives between meetings. Speaking at a lectern isn't the only way to be heard. Granted, that requires elected officials to be responsive and ready to engage constituents outside of meetings. Not all elected officials handle that as well as others. But receiving phone calls and emails as well as engaging constituents around town is truly part of the job.

Sadly, among those now representing the people on Fayetteville's City Council, only three -- Mark Kinion, Teresa Turk and Kyle Smith -- list email, home address and phone numbers on the city's website for direct contact with constituents. It might appear to some constituents that Sonia Gutierrez, Sarah Marsh, Matthew Petty, Sloan Scroggin and Sarah Bunch all live at the same place, 113 W. Mountain St., which is the address of City Hall.

Marsh also lists no phone number on the city's website, which instead says "Email preferred" for her.

If our paid elected officials are hesitant to open themselves up to those they serve, maybe it's no wonder the public shows up at meetings to see them face to face.

Commentary on 03/03/2020

Print Headline: How long to listen?

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