Our View: With public comments, it’s not a matter of if, but when

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(File photo)

Let’s get this out of the way now: public input and public comment is essential to democracy and good governance.

We see it every month at city council’s public hearings, as residents speak both at the start of the meeting and advocate for or against proposals scheduled to come before our elected officials. We saw it on January 20 as supporters came to D.C. to celebrate the inauguration of President Donald Trump. And we saw it as people both here and around the country marched the very next day — either in protest or in solidarity, depending on who you ask.

City council recently had a long — and at times fraught — discussion over how best to structure its meetings to accommodate residents’ input. For many years, the body allowed an unlimited number of people to speak for three minutes at the beginning of its public hearing about whatever they wished.

And until recently, it was a good system. The segment varied in length, but rarely got in the way of council’s advertised agenda for the day. The mayor and councilors would rarely engage with residents there, although they might take notes and follow up later.

But as administrations change, so do leadership styles. Mayor Allison Silberberg has taken a more hands-on approach to the pub- lic comment period since she was sworn in a year ago, frequently responding to residents at the close of their statements, and city councilors have followed suit.

As a result, the average duration of the so-called “open mic” portion of council’s Saturday public hearings have doubled from an average of 32 minutes in 2015 to 64 minutes last year, according to Vice Mayor Justin Wilson. And in some instances, the segment stretched past the two- or three-hour mark.

And while there’s nothing wrong with this change in approach, it means the way open-mic comments are accepted needs to change as well. It’s not fair to make people — residents and small business owners alike — wait for hours to be able to participate in local government via advertised docket items. We know that there are people who wished to speak on docket items in recent months, but either went home or submitted their testimony in written form as the hearing lurched onward.

We believe the new rule, in which the first 15 people signed up to speak for public comment speak at the start of the hearing and the rest must wait until after the scheduled agenda items, is a good idea to try to tackle the issue. It does not limit the ability for public comment, but rather rebalances it.

While the discussion surrounding this change was mostly thoughtful and well reasoned, a couple of aspects of the debate concerned us. First, once Vice Mayor Justin Wilson had compiled his research on the length of public comment periods, he should have requested the issue be put on a docket for discussion. The lack of notice and public input hampered his cause.

Second, after extensive debate and after it was clear where the rest of council stood on the issue, Silberberg’s refusal to let the discussion come to a conclusion and characterization of the measure as “anti-democratic” was counterproductive and ended a mostly constructive debate on a sour note.

But kudos to city councilors Tim Lovain and Del Pepper for their work to find a middle ground between Wilson and Silberberg’s divergent opinions.

It is important to remember, no matter where you fall on the issue, that this does not have to be the end of the discussion on public comment. Councilors expressed a willingness to revisit the issue if the new system isn’t working out.

We encourage them to do so, should the need arise.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thinking about those ‘confederate’ statues…Most likely surprising to my friends who know me as an avid civil rights/equal rights proponent….I am very torn about the idea of tearing down the statue in the center of Old Town Alexandria, VA., at the corners of Washington St. and Prince St. The statue is entitled “Appomattox”, created by sculptor M. Caspar Buberl and commissioned by the United Confederate Veterans of Alexandria in 1889. The statue was modeled after a painting of the same title that shows a lone soldier viewing the aftermath of the battle of Appomattox, where Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
    This is not a statue honoring a “leader” of the confederacy, the soldier is not an officer on a charging steed, brandishing a sword. Instead, the figure stands facing south with his arms crossed. His wide-brimmed hat is clasped in his right hand and the unarmed soldier is looking down toward the ground with a pensive, sad expression on his face.
    The base of the statue reads “Erected to the memory of the Confederate dead of Alexandria, Va. by their Surviving Comrades, May 24th 1889.” The base also bears the names of those from the city of Alexandria who died during the conflict. It doesn’t say “Hooray” for the Confederacy, it’s not in front of an official state building or city hall, there’s no confederate flag displayed. I was told it is the northern- most statue in the country to the Confederacy.
    The statue occupies the spot where a local confederate regiment mustered to retreat from the city just before Union troops seized Alexandria in 1861. The occupation of Alexandria lasted for the duration of the war; the longest military occupation by Union troops of any town during the entire conflict. The city was used as a main base for supplies, troop transfer, and other logistics, as well as to protect Washington, DC. Alexandria also became an important center for care of the wounded and sick. By the end of the war, more than 30 military hospitals were located in Alexandria, with 6,500 beds. Surgeons, nurses, orderlies, cooks, and ambulance drivers came to Alexandria to tend to the patients. Relief workers, volunteers, and worried family members flocked to the hospitals to care for the wounded from both sides.
    I have always been a history buff; I was particularly fascinated by that statue when first seeing it in 1993, when I moved to Alexandria. I already knew that Virginia was one of the “border” states where families were torn apart, brother against brother, some joining the Union Army, some the Confederacy. Even when learning about the Civil War in grade school, that particular fact made me very sad. But it also made me keenly aware of the horrors of that conflict (and any civil war).
    On Christmas Eve 1862, Julia Wilbur, a Quaker from Rochester, NY (my home town), came to Alexandria as a Freedmen’s aid worker. In a letter to a friend in Rochester she wrote: “You at a distance cannot imagine what a place this is…last Friday 700 wounded were (moved)…from the boats to the hospitals….Among all those wounded, suffering men, I heard not a single groan nor a complaint.”*
    Recently, the point has been made that the hundreds of statues across the country “honoring” the leaders, generals, segregationists etc., of the Civil War, were not put up directly after the war, but in the 1920’s to the 1960’s; years after the civil war ended. They were erected to honor segregationists and to ‘celebrate’ Jim Crow; but mostly to remind African-Americans that “you are still not equal”. “Separate but Equal’ was a farce, and everyone knew it….so I am all for those statues coming down.
    This statue is a reminder of the costs of war.” It was erected at a historic corner for a reason, and in fact it commemorates the end of the war at Appomattox. So I ask, could we not add additional context to the base, explaining its significance, so that children learn from the past, and so we can use it to explain to them the history of the incredible horrors happening today? D.S. Marvin
    *Source: Letter from Julia Wilbur to Anna Barnes December 22-24, 1862. From the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society Papers, 1851-1868, William L. Clements Library, the University of Michigan. Julia Wilbur, a relief worker from Rochester, NY, came to Alexandria during the Civil War. She kept a detailed diary from the 1840s through her death in 1895. Transcribed by Alexandria Archaeology, 2013-2014, from the originals in the Quaker Collection, Haverford College, PA.