Tuesday, February 27, 2007

North Canton City Council Muzzles Citizens in Public Meetings

Prepared Comments Made to
February 26, 2007

I would like to begin my comments tonight with an apology to Council President Doug Foltz, to this council and to the citizens of the City of North Canton. Two weeks ago, I made comments from the audience on two occasions during the Community & Economic Development Committee meeting without being recognized to speak. Mr. Repace, as Chairman of that committee, I apologize to you as well. During the regular city council meeting that followed, I attempted to follow-up my recognized presentation with one additional comment.

I recognize that no meeting can be conducted in that matter and I assure you Council President Foltz, that I will maintain the decorum that is needed in future public meetings at which I am present.

With that being said, I would ask that this council not penalize the citizens of this community by revamping the rule for public speaks in the manner that you now propose.

Citizens of this community have enjoyed the opportunity to attend city council meeting and speak publicly to their elected leaders for forty-six years. From my perspective this has not been a problem?

Since I have had the pleasure to sit on this council as well as in the audience, I think I can say that I have a pretty good perspective from both sides.

Do I think there is a problem with public speaks?

Yes! I believe there is a problem and that problem is a lack of transparency and accountability in the proceedings of North Canton City government that has developed in the last few years.

Having attended nearly every single council meeting since 2001, I can say that the public, for which each and every one of you work, is being allowed less and less input into the policy making decisions of their government.

I hope you realize that this body is conducting the public’s business. This council should understand that there are citizens who care about the quality and quantity of the debate that goes into each and every decision that is made up here on behalf of its citizens.

What I have observed in the six years of council meetings that I have attended is that the public has been losing the opportunity to provide input on public business that is conducted in this chamber.

The public has lost the opportunity to speak at Council of the Whole meetings when proposed legislation is being discussed. The opportunity to speak during Council of the Whole meetings was unimpeded until just a few short years ago. Unfortunately, the public is no longer allowed to speak at any of the Council of the Whole meetings.

There are exceptions made at the Council of the Whole meetings for certain people to be recognized to speak. Residents and nonresidents alike who are in good graces with those in power and who support the favored agenda of council are allowed to speak. Individuals who heap praise on everything their elected leaders do are allowed to speak. The criteria that this council uses to decide who shall be allowed to speak and who should not is obvious to all who attend council meetings.

This is not a rule but a practice that has crept into use in the last few years that muzzles the public and stifles honest discussion and debate. It tells citizens, that your input is not needed. It tells citizens that their elected officials, as members of council, do not care to hear what the public thinks on issues that come before them.

With this gag practice in place for public speaks at Council of the Whole meetings, I regularly encounter citizens who attend a council meeting hoping to speak publicly who are surprised to learn that they are not allowed to speak. They are told that they must come back next week for the regular council meeting.

For most citizens, this is one of the few meetings that they have attended in years or maybe this was their very first meeting. I am sure they are disappointed to find out that North Canton City Government prefers that citizens not participate in their government. And of course they leave the meeting without ever coming back.

The opportunity for the public to speak at the end of a regular council meeting titled “Final Call for New Business” is another practice that is no longer permitted. This is another lost opportunity for the public that has crept into practice and this again muzzles the public and stifles input from community residents.

In council meetings of years past, elderly residents would often come up to speak before the close of the meeting and comment on issues that were important to them or simply offer pearls of wisdom from their years of knowledge of the city. Public speaks at the Last Call for Business is no longer permitted.

What does the continuing loss of opportunities for the public to speak before this council say to the very residents they represent?

Ordinance 15-07 is now before this body. This ordinance seeks to place a time limit on the only remaining opportunity for the public to speak before this council.

What problem are you trying to correct? I believe you are manufacturing a problem to justify your actions.

The out of order comments I made from the audience two weeks ago did not occur during the Recognition of Visitors portion of a regular council meeting but at a Council of the Whole committee meeting. And you, President Foltz, had all the necessary authority to deal with it.

You dealt with it and that should be the end of it.

Why change the Recognition of Visitors portion of the regular council meeting? Is this the legacy that you want to leave behind?

Do you actually want to trample on the public’s opportunity to participate in their government just to stop one citizen?

This proposed change to the public’s opportunity to speak before council would create more harm than good. Surely some of you on this council can see that.

If you were to make changes to public comments at council meetings, the changes should be to RESTORE previously lost opportunities for the public to speak and NOT curtail what little opportunity that remains!

It would seem to me that this council has more pressing issues facing this city to address than limiting the remaining opportunity that the public has to address this council.

I assure you, President Foltz, and all of this council that I will not speak out of order in the future. There is simply no good reason to take drastic measures to further curtail the public’s opportunity to speak.

Do not let it be said that this council continued to allow the erosion of opportunities for the public to speak before this council or future councils.

Do not make this your legacy!

Thank you
Chuck Osborne
City of North Canton