Chris Rogers, editor, Winona Post
Winona Mayor Scott Sherman raised an important question late last month. Right now, citizens are only allowed to speak at City Council meetings if there’s a legally required public hearing on the agenda. Should the city allow public comment at every council meeting?
“I think very soon here we should look at public input during council meetings … I think we’ve all heard complaints about not being able to speak at council meetings,” Sherman told his fellow elected officials. “… And I’m going to throw the 800-pound gorilla out there: I think all of us as council members are afraid of that going off the rails. We don’t want meetings going to midnight every night. We put a lot of work in before the meetings, during the meetings. We don’t necessarily want a council meeting to last until 12:30 a.m. We also don’t want it to turn into the Wild West all of a sudden because we’ve got people coming in discussing items that are not of pertinence to that specific meeting. Those are things I would be wary of, but at the same time, I am also really in support of allowing the public to speak at council meetings in the future.”
Kudos to Sherman for bringing this issue to the fore and for backing a public comment period. Now he and the City Council should set aside their wariness and get behind this wholeheartedly because the concerns that make up this 800-pound gorilla are laughable. Allowing public comment is a no-brainer.
The Winona County Board and Winona Area Public Schools Board have both allowed public comment as a regular part of every meeting for years. The city of Winona should join the club.
Sometimes School Board meetings go into the wee hours of the night, but that’s not because of the public. There are easy ways to keep a comment session from monopolizing everyone’s time. The County Board, for instance, caps speakers at two minutes each with a total of 10 minutes allotted for all public comments. At the discretion of the board chair, the time may be extended to allow more people to speak, but the chair has the power to end the comments and move on to the business at hand.
Sherman also raises the fear that allowing citizens to talk about whatever may be important to them — regardless of whether it’s on the agenda — will turn meetings into the “Wild West.” Trying to police what citizens use their two minutes to talk about both defeats the purpose and is a fool’s errand. The point is to listen, and citizens often raise issues that aren’t on the agenda but should be.
In opposing regular comment periods, some City Council members point out that citizens can already email or call their council reps. For most people, this will surely be the preferred option, but there are good reasons to speak at a meeting, too. It is the only opportunity to talk orally with all council members at once — and it takes four council members to achieve anything. Other people watching the meeting will hear your comments, local news outlets might echo them, and you could find allies in your civic efforts. Finally, raising an issue in public simply puts a little more pressure on elected officials. There’s no more pretending it doesn’t exist. That’s a good thing. Government works best when it gets a little pressure from the people. There have been plenty of examples of public comments spurring the County Board and School Board to positive action, such as the county’s unanimous decision to add citizen election judges to the ballot board last fall.
Not all of the public comments will be gems, and the city won’t always take action, but this constant dialogue is what democracy is all about. So pass the mic and let the people speak.
If you agree, contact your City Council person and ask them to add public comments to meetings. Contact information is available at www.cityofwinona.com/319/City-Council-Mayor.