The public be damned?

On April 13, the Asheville City Council voted unanimously to limit the opportunities for public input at Council meetings. This move, taken despite a marked lack of evidence to justify the need — and, ironically, with little warning or opportunity for feedback — raises serious questions about the rights and responsibilities of both citizens and their leaders in a republic.

Unquestionably, Council meetings sometimes run into the wee hours, and this puts an added strain on decision-makers. But no one is forced to seek public office, and hearing constituents’ concerns is clearly a key part of the job description.

Furthermore, in a nation where less than one-third of the eligible population even takes the trouble to vote, shouldn’t we take pride in the fact that Asheville residents care enough about their community to speak up at public meetings, rather than viewing it as a problem to be fixed? And if Council members believe that lengthy meetings are hindering their ability to govern, shouldn’t they be looking at all the contributing factors — including their own behavior — and all the possible solutions, rather than focusing solely on limiting the amount of time taken up by what are, after all, called “public-comment periods” and “public hearings”?

The Council chamber is one of the last sanctuaries of civil discourse — a place where people can directly address their leaders. Yet by limiting the total time allotted for public comment on any agenda item to one hour, Council members have virtually ensured that people desiring to speak will be turned away. And by giving the mayor the authority (subject to Council’s agreement) “to determine when sufficient information has been presented at any public hearing or public-comment period and [the item] is ready for action by the Council,” they’ve set a disturbing precedent that opens the door to potential abuse.

Admittedly, members of the public sometimes sing a repetitious chorus. But isn’t the number of ordinary citizens willing to sit for hours in exchange for the privilege of three minutes at the microphone as significant a gauge of community concern as the specific points each speaker raises? And if citizens are summarily denied a chance to speak, where can they go?

Time and again, various members of this City Council have stressed that they base their decisions on facts, rather than emotions or popular opinion. But where is the staff report exploring the causes of long meetings and listing potential solutions? Where are the studies of how similar-sized cities have dealt with this issue? Are Council meetings really any longer now than they were five or 10 years ago? And if so, is excessive public comment truly the root of the problem? How do we know?

If Council members are serious about shortening their meetings, why not start by looking closer to home? The mayor and the city manager set the meeting agendas. And though the March 23 Council meeting stretched nearly eight hours, that agenda listed no less than 13 public hearings, several of them predictably controversial. Wouldn’t it make more sense to schedule additional formal sessions when so many weighty issues are on the table? Or to more regularly continue long meetings to a later date (as Council occasionally does)?

Then there’s the question of work sessions. These informal meetings give Council a chance to hear reports, pepper staff with questions, and gauge where individual Council members are on the issues. But four of the past seven work sessions have been canceled, forcing these vital functions onto already-strained formal-session agendas. Who is responsible for canceling those work sessions — the public or Council members?

After Council had finished grilling staff about a proposed UDO amendment during the April 20 work session, Council member Holly Jones asked her colleagues to remember, when the issue returned in formal session, that no questions remained.

A smiling Mayor Charles Worley agreed, declaring, “I’ve often said we’re our own worst enemy when it comes to time spent in meetings.”

Jones added that she will continue issuing her challenge “until we see some changes in behavior by Council.”

Yet the new time limits explicitly exempt “staff presentations and any structured Council debate.”

Granted, deliberating important issues at the end of a seven-hour meeting can be frustrating and sometimes counterproductive — witness the confusion that followed a post-midnight vote on the now-abandoned Grove Park Inn high-rise, when Council members disagreed about exactly what they’d voted to approve. And reviewing governmental procedures with an eye toward streamlining them seems reasonable. But by its very nature, democracy is inefficient, and procedural changes that undermine citizens’ basic rights go too far.

The recent outcry about both the Grove Park Inn project and The Block redevelopment plan only underscores the need for Council members to consult with their constituents before taking action. And scapegoating the public is not an acceptable substitute for tackling the tougher questions that need to be asked. In this instance, we believe City Council has acted inappropriately and with unwarranted haste.

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