The one way to really learn about public process and what people truly think is to listen to the public when they come to speak to a Council Committee or to City Council. This is a time honoured process that when elected officials are considering a change in policy or development, they actually take the time to listen to what the public have to say before making the final Council decision. And you can tell a good City Councillor too, they are paying attention and taking notes on what people say, not texting on their cell phone.
This is different from the informal information meetings with the public, telephone calls and conversations members of the public may have with staff. Many have suggested that with the information line 311 filtering calls and with a centralized communications department organizing meetings there is less chance for the public to talk directly to city staff and to decision makers.
I also know that you really have to watch anything going to Council in July before the break. This year is no different. In a prime example of the current political taste to make politicians even more separated from the public they supposedly serve, the City of Vancouver and the TransLink Mayors’ Council want to lower the time members of the public can address them from five minutes to three minutes.
Think of that~taxpayers have 180 seconds to speak to Council about something that concerned them enough to get away from their jobs, make the trek to City Hall, sit patiently through other agenda items, and wait for their 180 seconds to speak.
I have sat through many public hearings and also listened to many members of the public speaking to Council. While five minutes may seem onerous to elected officials and their staff, my belief is that everyone has a right to speak to Council. If Council is worried about the fact that their public hearings are lengthy, it is not the public comment that needs to be changed, but the process itself.
You can take a look at the council report where Council is considering using “electronic” meetings” and their rationale for limiting speakers to three minutes. In their own document they note “Most Canadian municipalities surveyed allow speakers during standing committee, and allow them to speak for 5 minutes. In the United States, a majority of local governments surveyed allow for either two or three minutes of speaking time.”
Despite what the City says, this is not a place allowing the public to have much input into plans and processes. Public being able to address Council is an unfiltered way to hear directly from taxpayers. For citizens that do not have English as a first language, 180 seconds to speak is not equitable.
This is just one more example of Vancouver becoming more like an American city, limiting public discourse and exchange instead of embracing its vitality.
That public discourse is what made Vancouver the place it is, from traffic calming in the West End to stopping the freeway in Chinatown and Strathcona. Councils should be celebrating this important public right, not limiting it.