Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Public Speaks at North Canton Council Meetings Encouraged Citizen Participation For 46 Years

Prepared Comments Made to
January 28, 2008

For forty-six years, North Canton residents have had the opportunity to address their elected leaders, publicly, on the record, at city council meetings. All of that changed with the last term of council. Very early in their term in February of 2006, council discussed implementing a time limit for visitors’ comments. That effort was stopped in its tracks after the Repository weighed in with an editorial on February 15, 2006, titled, “Messy, tedious – that’s democracy.”
The editorial suggested a simple test for men and women who have been elected to public office: “Before proposing something that will affect the people who put you in office, take your idea for a mental test drive. Imagine you’re back on the campaign trail, knocking on doors. Tell the people who answer the door what you’re thinking. Maybe frame your idea as a campaign promise.
“Imagine, for example, telling Ms. North Canton Voter: ‘Vote for me and I promise I won’t let you or your neighbors speak to City Council for more than five minutes.’”
That editorial seemed to discourage any efforts to limit public speaks for the remainder of 2006 but in 2007, council resurrected the idea and placed a time limit on public speaks at council meetings with the passage of Ordinance No. 15-07.
At last week’s council meeting I listened to the new City Council President Daryl Revoldt proposes a modification to the Recognition of Visitors portion of council meetings. When asked for his input, former Council President Doug Foltz defended the legislation that had been enacted under his leadership in the previous council term.
Mr. Foltz stated that he was pleased with the present legislation restricting public speaks of citizens who speak at North Canton council meetings. Mr. Foltz further noted that similar restrictions are imposed in other communities.
The City of North Canton has allowed unrestricted public speaks on any issue that is important to its citizens since its incorporation as a city in 1961. That is over 46 years, nearly a half a century. That is an excellent legacy to our democracy. Why did that end?
Former Council President Foltz detailed the requirements imposed in other communities on public speaks as his reason for imposing the new restrictions in North Canton. Who cares what is standard practice for public speaks in Louisville, Canton, Canal Fulton, or Massillon?
When we were children we have all at one time or another used the argument with our parents that so and so is doing this or that to which our parents would reply, “If the neighbors jumped off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge too?”
Many years ago, communities in the south would require African Americans to ride in the back of buses and they segregated the use of public restrooms and water fountains for “whites” only. Thankfully, cities throughout America did not adopt these practices just because they were the law in another community.
We all live in a community that reflects our beliefs and choose a government that respects us as citizens. The City of North Canton has its own government and its own laws for a reason. What is acceptable in one community is not necessarily acceptable in another community.
This council should be happy that the few citizens who do attend council meetings are interested in their city government; otherwise, you would be playing before an empty house. Maybe that is what some council members would prefer. I hope that is not the case.
Former Council President Foltz also stated that he was prompted to propose the limit on public speaks at the suggestion of one constituent. To sum up former President Foltz’s reasons for last year’s legislation restricting public speaks, other communities were doing it and one constituent suggested the idea.
These are not very strong reasons for implementing legislation that restrains the democratic process for citizens in our community. The system was not broken. The citizens of North Canton enjoyed speaking at council meetings for 46 years.
There is ample authority in Robert’s Rules of Order under which council conducts its meetings to give the council president authority to control the meeting.
President Revoldt, I do appreciate your efforts to soften the restrictions on public speaks and I fully realize that, with you as council president, in effect, there will be little or no restrictions to public speaks.
On the other hand, I believe that you would have the votes to repeal Ordinance No. 15-07 if the members of this council would vote with their hearts and minds instead of following the crowd. The time-honored practice of voting as a fellow council member votes on issues and legislation is not how the system is supposed to work.
The citizens of North Canton do vote for seven council members every two years for a reason. It is quite unnerving to watch council after council, year after year, pass every piece of legislation that comes before it with a unanimous vote.
Either there are some unexplained phenomena that possess every council body or cloning of humans was discovered long ago in North Canton and no one has alerted the scientific community.
The amendment to Ordinance No. 15-07 that you are proposing for passage tonight, in effect, waters down the restrictions previously imposed on public speaks, thus making that ordinance rather useless and worthy of repeal.
Furthermore, between you President Revoldt and former Council President Jon Snyder, there are 10 years of tenure as President of the North Canton City Council. Thankfully, neither of you used legislation in your terms as president of this council to limit or hinder public debate on issues that come before this council body. Ordinance No. 15-07 was politically motivated and I ask that you dispose of that legislation rather than make this new council become a part of the legacy of the previous council.

Thank you,
Chuck Osborne
City of North Canton