by Janice Garry
I have chickens in my backyard. Sometimes they fight over a worm or tasty bug. If one chicken has a tidbit another chicken might try to steal it. One chicken pecks aggressively to try to steal the bug, the other chicken pecks back to protect her prize. Whichever chicken wins, she struts around, puffs up her feathers, cackles her self-praise to the other chickens and shows a good deal of self-satisfaction. “I’m the chicken, I’m the chicken!”
I learn a lot about people from watching my chickens. Sometimes when I go to City Commission meetings, I see people trying to steal the prize. I’m not totally sure what the prize is. Sometimes I think people are trying to steal the limelight and attention. Sometimes I think they are proud of their own ideas and want to make sure everybody in the room knows that their ideas are the best. Sometimes I think they just want to peck at the commissioners and the other chickens in the room. Once they’ve had their say, I watch their feathers puff up and see them strut back to their chairs, self-congratulatory that they’ve put on such a good show of voicing their ideas or criticisms or cynicism. It’s pretty interesting.
I like to think that as humans, we’ve grown beyond chicken behavior. I like to think that we can all put our worms and bugs together and come up with a feast for our community. I like to think that the point of meeting together is to collaborate. Commissioners and those who attend city meetings are interested in our community doing well. There are loads of good ideas and some not so good ideas. Through discussion and research we can make the distinction.
Recently at City Commission meetings, the aggressive pecking has peaked. To the point that people have been forced to leave. To the point that the Commission is rethinking how to reform public input to be less inflammatory. There’s a good deal of finger wagging and pointing back and forth. As with most problems, responsibility, and solutions, lie with both sides.
What makes sense? First and foremost, it makes sense that citizens would have input into their government. In Gainesville, there are a couple avenues. A single email address sprays out to all six commissioners and the mayor. CityComm@cityofgainesville.org. Citizens can write their thoughts and ideas any time. There is no automatic system to confirm delivery (don’t ask me why), but sometimes I’ll CC myself on a message. When I get my own message in my inbox, I rest assured that it also got through to the commissioners. The volume is such that typically, commissioners do not respond to an individual email. Citizens can also make an appointment to meet with a commissioner. The administrative staff are helpful and accommodating. Citizens can follow topics of interest by going on the City of Gainesville site and entering key words, such as “tree.” The citizen will be sent notifications of meetings at which the word “tree” is a part of the discussion. The citizen might attend the meeting or, after the meeting, access the minutes online. And, back to the topic at hand, citizens can speak at City Commission meetings.
It makes sense that there would be guidelines, such as a time limit for each person. It makes sense that there is an expectation that the audience would be respectful of each speaker and not express favor or disapproval about what is said. It’s intimidating to most people to get up in front of the mic. Having commentary from the audience can lessen citizen participation. It also makes sense that comments would be about issues and not a personal attack on any person or commissioners. I’ve heard commissioner’s intelligence diminished, their morality disputed and their motives denigrated by chest puffing chickens, uh, speakers. Geez! Really? How can that be a constructive way to get things done?!
We’re all in this together. Each of us bears a responsibility to find a way to share ideas respectfully. Maybe tech can help. Maybe citizens could text in messages that would go on the public record. There could be input to the meetings without having to physically attend. There are lots of ideas bouncing around and we need to stay informed and keep exploring options. In the meantime, leave egos at the door. Enter with ideas worth sharing and know that the person across from you may have another great idea. Birds of a feather … flock together?