Bea Roberson: New Council Rules Give Citizens Even Less Voice in Richmond

blogimage.jpgThe Richmond City Council rolled out its new procedures for pulling agenda items for discussion at meetings on Tuesday evening.

The new rules require that anyone from the public who wishes to pull an item off the consent calendar for comment and discussion at a Council meeting must, first arrive between 5:30 and 6:30, contact a city staff member to ask their question(s) about the item and the staff member has to sign the speaker’s card in order to pull it from the consent calendar.  This means that if I want the Council to discuss an item on the consent calendar and let my voice be heard on the matter, I must arrive early and find a staff member who knows about the item, and sign so that I can pull it.  They now place many items on the consent calendar for large dollar amounts, which, given our deficit seems that there should more openness regarding the need for these items and the public’s right to ask whether we really HAVE TO HAVE THESE ITEMS or not.   This new state of affairs is simply unacceptable.

As a member of the Richmond community and a citizen of the municipality, I should be allowed to pull any item on the consent calendar that I wish.  The idea that the Council can erect completely arbitrary barriers that prevent the average citizen from getting involved in the process of debate and governance is outrageous.  All the while, the mayor and vice mayor keep saying they promote democracy.  THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT DEMOCRACY MEANS.  The very nature of the rule is an affront to the democratic ideals of government that we all hold dear in the United States.  Why should I be required to consult the city’s staff members about my concerns with Council agenda items before a Council meeting?

In addition to the fact that the new rule is an assault on democracy and the democratic process in Richmond, it also appears to be an utter failure in terms of its intended purpose.  The rule, put in place as part of a package of new procedures that is intended to cut down the length of the Council meetings, has the opposite effect.

The idea behind the new rule is that by making members of the public contact and consult with city staff about items on the agenda before the meetings, some or all of their questions would be resolved and they would not have to speak at the meeting.  The problem is not the public speaking, it is on the dais.  ALSO IT IS NOT ONE COUNCILPERSON, THEY ALL CONTRIBUTE TO THE CHAOS, INTERRUPTING EACH OTHER AND MANY OTHER UNCIVILIZED ACTIONS.  The mayor cannot let anyone give an opinion that does not match her own without a comment.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, this still is AMERICA, isn’t it?

There was little to no evidence of the intended ameliorative effect on Tuesday night in the city council chambers.   The council did not even come out  of the closed session until 7:20, which is 50 minutes that they kept the public waiting, discussing whether or not to overturn the City Manager on a  personnel matter.  The Council meeting was not adjourned until 11:36 pm – well past its scheduled ending time of 11:00 pm – and the Council was only able to debate and vote on one major agenda item.  Meanwhile, not only did the rule not alleviate the problem of lengthy meetings, it seems to have possibly exacerbated the problem because the Mayor appears to have no idea how to implement the new rules. Multiple arguments with her fellow councilmembers broke out that only served to draw the meeting out longer and longer.

The Council, in the interest of keeping its meetings short, has put into place a procedural requirement that infringes on the Richmond public’s rights to be involved in the process of governance. This ill-advised rule also fails utterly to achieve its stated goal.  Seems like business as usual for the Richmond City Council….

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