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David Post: Public comment a vital part of city government

“All that separates us is skin color.”

“I’ve been coming here for months and talking to ya’ll and it’s falling on deaf ears. No one has gotten back to me yet.”

“In a state with open carry and everyone has a gun, what do you think will happen when someone barges through the door?”

“I’m afraid to let my children go outside to play.  If all I had to worry about is a dog park, that would be a great day.”

“I went to school with the grandkids of some KKK members. They are some of the coolest friends I have.”

“Gang violence didn’t just happen.  It’s a progression. When young black males see police, they see a death warrant.”

“I’m tired of hearing words. Do something before something else happens.”

“I have to walk a mile to get a bus.”

“We can’t have a chronic nuisance problem and have good neighborhoods.”

“The grass is too high. There are rats and snakes in there.”

“Ralph Ketner would scold us for not acting [on Fibrant]. He would put together an outstanding marketing and sales plan.”

“I’ll give her my three minutes.”

Powerful stuff. Insightful. Important.  Poignant. Articulate. Spot on.

These are citizens commenting during the public comment period at City Council meetings. Certainly more memorable than most of what we, the council members, say. As a member of City Council, I believe public comment is the most important part of any council meeting.

Six years ago, I attended a City Council meeting to suggest changes to the sign ordinance. At that time, public comment was held at the end of alternate meetings. I waited for three hours only to discover that public comment was not on the agenda that week. Two weeks later, I returned, waited another three hours, finally got my three minutes, and made my pitch. The council listened. The mayor said “Thank you.”  That was it. (Two years ago, the Planning Board began to rewrite the sign ordinance and is still working on it.)

When elected to City Council last year, I immediately proposed that public comment be offered at every council meeting and at a specified time. No one would have to wait for hours as I had.  Council changed the rules. Now public comment is at 6 p.m. at every meeting.

Even so, before speaking, citizens are told that council can only listen but cannot comment. However, the rule states, “Public comment is not intended to require the Council to answer impromptu questions.” It does not say that council is prohibited from responding or asking questions. So, I occasionally comment and ask questions.

I’m not alone. Councilman Kenny Hardin, who like me feels muzzled, said it best: “I feel like I’m in a zoo. To sit here and not respond is frustrating and patronizing. It’s disrespectful.”

U.S. senators, congressional members and North Carolina legislators hold hearings, make comments,and ask questions. I worked in the U.S. senate for three years and prepared comments and questions for two senators. After I left the Hill, I even testified before a congressional committee on an issue so insignificant, I don’t recall it, but I faced comments and questions.

When citizens speak, their comments should not fall on deaf ears. Some citizens, after speaking, have asked, “What next?” Occasionally, citizens are referred to city staff for further investigation. City staff are true public servants, but they lack the public voice that council has, so citizens can feel that they have been ushered down a black hole.

Last month, an agenda item appeared to be a sure thing. I received 13 emails and calls opposing the issue. A number of citizens commented opposing the proposal. None in support. I voted accordingly.

Public comment is critical, providing council the opportunity to learn from citizens, often from those who are not our supporters. It is our most important duty. If we listen, ask and learn — basic and essential kindergarten skills — we can serve the public better and more purposefully.

David Post is a member of the Salisbury City Council.

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