When unacceptable becomes normal

by Gary Gordon

It’s become a normal practice at Gainesville City Commission meetings to have people removed by armed police officers. A normal occurrence.  Acceptable.

Who’s being removed? Generally it’s people who disagree with Commission decisions or contemplated plans. But their specific crime is speaking longer than the allotted three minutes.

When I served on the City Commission (’83-’86) we did not run a clock on those who spoke to us and we often engaged in dialogue, answering questions, sharing comments, and directing staff to answer questions citizens brought up.

I think our fundamental principle then was the Commission meeting was a meeting WITH the people, not just FOR the people.

I don’t know when the clock on addressing the Commission began, and I don’t know when it was decided that “if you can’t say what you mean in three minutes then you haven’t organized your thoughts.”

The fact is, sometimes a coherent presentation of an idea and/or facts takes longer than 3 minutes. We all know it.

Recently the Commission changed its public participation rules. One change is to require speakers to pre-register—but they didn’t decide on the specifics. Should one have to register an hour in advance or can one register as the hearing is occurring?

The difference is critical but the more important question is: Why? The public hearings I’ve participated in since my return to Gainesville have all been orderly—except when one senior citizen was escorted out by GPD for the aforementioned crime.  

One of the mainstays of democracy in Gainesville is that anyone can rise to speak without having to decide in advance or notify anyone of their intentions. Sometimes people hear something someone said and decide they want to add to it or disagree.

And I’ve never seen a collision at the microphone with people arguing or fighting over who’s next. It’s all been, to use a popular word, “civil.”

“Civility” is a big word these days. It’s not my favorite. Perhaps because I grew up in the 60s when confrontation was required. It’s ironic that some of the same people who would shout at Richard Spencer or Donald Trump, Jr. demand civility when citizens angry about tax, utility rate and fire assessment fee increases—angry about facing the choice of medicine or heat—and angry at these new rules that decrease and add hurdles to participation protest and push the envelope to reveal some ugly truths.

Put another way: if a Republican-controlled Commission demanded civility as they enacted these rules coupled with a string of decisions that angered liberals, progressives, radicals—Iguana readers— would that demand be met with obedience?

It is the Commission that sets the tone and it is on them to change it.

As readers of Zinn and Chomsky, we know it’s necessary to flip the paradigm:  Is it civil or uncivil to need more than three minutes to make a point? To attack a policy? Is it civil or uncivil to evict someone from a public meeting for going over time or challenging the Commission?

Another rule change: equal speakers on each side. Now I admit it’s unclear to me if this was actually decided because I found it so incredible to even consider. In the hearing on GNV Rise approximately 65 people spoke and only four or five spoke in favor of the City’s plan. Does this new rule mean there would’ve been only five people allowed to speak on each side and the other 60 would have to remain silent?

That’s hardly the essence of participatory democracy, and it’s a clear violation of the standards Gainesville has historically embraced in modern times.

And there’s the change regarding emails: apparently Commissioners now get to classify (as in keep secret) some emails.

I realize all these Commissioners and the Mayor were elected by the majority of people voting, and have experienced that criticizing any of them carries risk.

But as a former Commissioner, an Iguana-reader, and as an American, it sickens me to see people hauled out of a public meeting, and is further sickening that no Commissioners protest and that many in the community hide behind “there has to be rules” instead of genuinely exploring how to either improve the system or have it operate as it did in the early/mid ‘80s when people weren’t hauled away.

The increasing of power of any government thru decreasing citizen participation should be a cause for alarm for everyone.

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