Public participation? Public theatre? Neither? Both?
Anyone who has ever watched a city council meeting in the United States (or, I would suspect, elsewhere) knows that they may very well be in for a very entertaining event–particularly when the public has the opportunity to speak. As an Austinite, I have particularly fond memories of the speeches given by Jennifer Gale, a one-of-a-kind participant in Austin City Council meetings who spoke frequently and colorfully on an array of topics. Her memorial service was attended by many Council members, and she remains a household name at City Hall.
But as a public participation practitioner, I often wonder about the impact of public participation during Council meetings which, after all, often mark the culmination of public participation processes in other venues (open community meetings, planning commission or other subcommittee meetings, etc.). One can certainly imagine a scenario in which large numbers of people attend a Council meeting in support of or in opposition to a measure and thereby sway undecided Council members to vote their way. On the other hand, it might seem unlikely that a Council member would hear one (or even 10 or more) three-minute speeches and find they felt significantly different about a key issue.
Against that mental backdrop, I read this article from the Providence, Rhode Island area, where the Council wants to swear in members of the public who wish to speak to the Council. The article suggests that the policy came about because of the behavior of speakers, though I wonder whether the notion of swearing in a speaker would make the speaker feel more or less welcome to speak his or her mind. After all, a typical oath (which, by the way, many would feel uncomfortable taking for religious or other personal reasons) would involve swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, which might make one think he was in a courtroom on trial for his or her beliefs rather than in an assembly where their speech is more unrestricted.
Clearly, those convening public dialogues like city council meetings must, of necessity, take steps to ensure that the space is safe for all to participate, and the unruly behavior of some could make the space unsafe for others. That said, it remains to be seen whether the particular reforms put forward in Rhode Island will meaningfully improve public participation there. It would be hard to justify not involving the public as participants in meetings open to the public, so it seems more productive to have some rules for participation than to prohibit such participation entirely.
But elected officials in Rhode Island ought to consider whether their system for involving (or, in some cases, not involving) the public has, in a way, catalyzed or provoked some of the questionable behavior exhibited by the participants. For instance, if a member of the public wanted to have an audience with elected officials but had to wait hours for a few minutes of time, or if the public had previously not had a chance to address elected officials at all, it would make sense that they would feel frustration, anger, and other negative emotions that might come out when they addressed the government.
So, it is incumbent upon any elected body not simply to create a system whereby a person can participate in meetings of the City Council (subject to rules that keep the forum safe and open to all), but also to develop other channels for the public to communicate with its elected officials–in-person, online, with one another, and so on. Doing so would not only placate those upset by the limits placed on their public participation. It would also give more people a chance to participate, thereby giving elected officials a clearer sense of how their constituents feel about an issue, so that the eventual public policy better suits the community and lasts longer or withstands future challenges.