You can’t help but wonder how long public comment is going to remain a part of the City Council’s Tuesday rituals.
Over the past several weeks, the Amarillo City Council has separated public comment from the regular part of its meeting, effectively cutting out the public’s ability to participate in public meetings. While public comment was moved to its own time and City officials promised to allow more people to speak, it has since become a circus of showing taxpaying citizens how little the government cares about their voices. City manager Jared Miller announced public comment would no longer be recorded, City Councilmembers have wagged fingers, spoken down to residents during this time and have accused nearly every person with an opposing viewpoint of making “personal attacks.”
Then, there is the fact that Mayor Ginger Nelson has appeared to skip public comment the last two weeks in a row. Meanwhile, she has made the regular action part of the meeting, which starts a 1PM, just an hour after the start of public comment.
I have editorialized about public comment before. I hold a belief that government should be as open and transparent as possible when serving as stewards of tax dollars. This includes listening to citizens and taking criticism, when due.
Accusing members of the public of “personal attacks” because you don’t like the content of their speech is not proper representation. In fact, it’s not any kind of representation, seeing as how the members of the City Council will not answer what constitutes a “personal attack.” These seem to be rules drafted by unelected municipal staff that elected officials do not know how to properly enforce, but they want to anyway.
On the topic of missing meetings, I will also say that I think it is acceptable for elected officials to miss occasional meetings. Business happens and life happens, and the individuals elected certainly are human. However, what is unacceptable is an elected official attending a 7AM tax hearing, skipping public comment at noon, then showing up for a 1PM meeting. While claims of prior engagements can be made, it looks incredibly tone deaf, and just downright irresponsible, to claim that a change is being made to increase public participation, an then failing on delivering on your part.
Thus far, the City Council has seemed to care little about preserving the integrity of public comment. While, in the eyes of this writer, neither Mayors Debra McCartt or Paul Harpole were superb at their jobs, I never saw the total lack of respect under either of these two that I have seen under this City Council.
So, what’s next for Council meetings? Will public comment even exist six months down the road? I don’t know. No person sitting on the dais has given me much hope as to preserving one of the last remaining outlets for citizens to voice concerns to elected officials.
Social media comments can be deleted, phone calls can be left unreturned, emails can be ignored. But, for years, during three glorious minutes, each taxpayer in Amarillo has had the ability to voice their concerns, frustrations, praise, disappointments and more toward the City Council, with the people who are supposed to represent taxpayers being forced to listen.
We cannot allow this City Council or any future City Councils to do away with public comment in Amarillo. Not only is our freedom to speak at Council meetings at stake, but so is the citizens’ place at the top of the City’s organizational structure.
I would like to encourage every person reading this editorial to sign up to speak at the next City Council meeting and make sure your government knows you are watching. And, if Mayor Nelson or city manager Miller is reading this article, I would like to sincerely ask you to make public comment part of the regular meeting again and to reverse your disastrous recording policy.
I hope nobody views this as a “personal attack,” but Amarillo deserves much better.
-Thomas Warren III, Editor-in-Chief