By Noah Dawson
I was not able to make the city council meeting yesterday, as I was unable to fit it into my schedule. I was still able to watch it, though, thanks to citizens who posted video of the meeting to Facebook. Two recurring themes about the last several public comment meetings stuck out to me again this week; the way the city tried to stop people from straying from their strict definition of city business and the way they prematurely ended the meeting, despite the fact that there were still people on the list who had yet to speak.
Mayor Nelson, on several occasions during this week’s meeting, interrupted speakers who she claimed were not following rules of decorum. One of the speakers she interrupted was Claudette Smith, who commented on the way some of our elected officials had been responding to people on social media platforms regarding property taxes. The mayor claimed that those are personal and implied they are wholly separate from any city business. Last week, acting mayor Hayes interrupted me, claiming that I was getting personal when I pointed out that the city manager had made disparaging attacks against those who speak at council meetings. Now, I would like politics to become less personal. I’ve wrote about the works of economist and political philosopher F.A. Hayek before, and this is another issue where I think his ideas are relevant. In several of his works, including his famous “The Road to Serfdom,” he puts forward the idea that the role of government should be rulemaking. It shouldn’t pick winners and losers, it shouldn’t pick favorites, it should not be personal. However, we are not at that point, and the actions which public government officials partake in are relevant, especially given that our city is a representative democracy. If personal actions, beliefs, and motivations were wholly separate from policy, a wholly unelected bureaucracy would be just as good of a system as an elected council. I don’t believe that anybody on the council hates Amarillo, but I do believe we have philosophical and personal differences of opinion on what policies are best for the city, and I think that it is self evident that these personal beliefs and actions are relevant to city policy. In fact, I think that’s precisely why acting mayor Hayes was unable to give a clear definition of personal attack when asked to last week. The line between personal beliefs of government officials and the way those beliefs manifest themselves in city policy is not one which can ever be clearly defined. Further proof of this can also be found in City Manager Miller’s reasoning as to why it is important to have staff present at meetings. The printed words of city policy are not the only pertinent information about what makes up city policy. It’s also the dialogue between council members and staff which shape the way policy effects the city. It’s my belief that this relevance of the way the council talks and acts extends beyond the council chambers. Of course, nobody should make completely unsubstantiated character attacks, but to interrupt people who bring up what are often valid points is in no way indicative of a functioning government at any level.
My other main complaint is that the public comment section, again, was advertised as lasting until 1pm on the city website. The meeting ended at about 12:27pm. For the third week in a row, this was done despite a speaker appearing on the list not yet present when called upon. The city must be flexible about this, but they refuse to. The council sometimes pays lip service to the idea that they care about public comment, but the way they’ve handled public comment the last few weeks makes me wonder. It seems like the low turnout to the new meeting times is proof that the council must be more flexible on this issue. Not once have more than 10 people spoken, despite things being more contentious than ever. The first speaker, James Schenck, stated that he had waited to sign up, hoping to not be the first speaker. To me, this indicates that people probably aren't signing up because they feel they can't make a meeting at such a time. The least the council could do is be flexible and have comment for the whole hour for those who do sign up.
It's sad to see our city being run this way. Valid points are silenced, and meetings are ended without regard for when they are advertised. I'm still going to hope that the city fixes these issues. Meanwhile, I'll be collecting petition signatures and hopefully finding time to speak at council meetings in the future.