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

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

(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.