By Debora Goldstein
NORWALK, Conn. – After elections are over, elected officials (i.e. public servants) are supposed to put partisan political considerations aside and serve for the good of the city. In a democratically structured, representative governing body like our Common Council, there are three important components to good decision-making: information, debate and a clear set of rules for finalizing a decision (the vote).
In attending meetings of the Common Council and various council committees over the last year, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Partisanship and disdain for public debate are creating toxic divisions between our representatives and the people they represent. These elements are also preventing members of our council from carrying on their responsibilities to the electorate at large.
As far as information is concerned, council members have complained about insufficient time to review materials in advance of meetings, as well as incomplete information prior to undertaking a vote. Members of the public are treated to vague or incomplete agendas, last-minute notice of special meetings, and room assignment shifts that can be likened to a game of musical chairs. Also like musical chairs, if the room chosen is too small to accommodate all attendees, members of the public end up standing, or even seated on benches in the hall outside the meeting room.
A government that is performing it’s duties to its citizens with fiscal responsibility and full disclosure should not live in fear of criticism and open debate. It should welcome the opportunity to engage citizens who are involved and informed and it should incorporate as much of the public’s input as is practicable to do. We are not pests to be avoided, but the people you are representing.
As far as debate, our council has a laudable practice of putting public comment at the beginning of every agenda, for as long as it takes, but partisanship has poisoned the content of much of this valuable period. Partisanship is also stifling debate within the council with the use of parliamentary procedure to prevent the minority caucus from debating matters at all.
In meetings of broad public interest, such as the tax cap decision affecting the Board of Education budget or the sanitation privatization issue, there was much debate and direct voting on the issue. While not everyone agreed upon the decision, at least every citizen had an opportunity to understand why individual members favored a particular position and what was at stake.
On issues which do not draw hundreds of observers, however, there is a very different tone. I saw this first-hand at the recent council meeting with a resolution to re-examine the decision of the police department to eliminate the position of captain from the ranks. A steady stream of public commenters got up to accuse the members who introduced this resolution of partisan political posturing, devious motives and of irresponsibly wasting the time of the council. One commenter even suggested that the council “mind its own business,” suggesting that the council had no right to concern itself with the operation of the police force, which is funded by our city tax-payers.
It was also suggested to two members of the council that they are not citizens for the purpose of addressing the council body during the public comment period. Our mayor derisively dismissed these activities by advising each to “go ahead and talk to yourself,” as if forgetting that there were 14 other members of the council all listening as well. It soon became apparent why these council members resorted to the tactic of talking as citizens. Once again, as I have seen happen numerous times before, the resolution was moved and one comment was permitted before another council member moved to cut-off debate (a motion that is not debatable). A vote was taken, and five members of the council were effectively silenced from telling our citizens exactly why this issue was being raised and what its merits might have been.
As a member of the public in attendance, I find this whole spectacle offensive. Information is the life-blood of democracy and I walked away knowing nothing more about why this issue was being raised.
I’ve worked with or spoken with every member of this council in one venue or another and I don’t believe anybody is intentionally malicious, or that these actions are necessarily personal (though I find name-calling by the mayor and certain other council members profoundly disrespectful and all too common). Interestingly, at the committee level, these people often work together and review issues that ultimately do not get passed on to the full council. I see responsible discussion long into the night with good-faith efforts to figure out what is best for the city.
One has to wonder why the atmosphere of the council chambers has become so toxic, and why some members view stifling debate and withholding information as responsible governing. When this city is facing monumental challenges from the economic downturn, decreasing state and federal funding, declining job growth, aging infrastructure, more complex educational priorities and now the aftermath of three devastating storms, why are we are so afraid to discuss our needs openly and in full view of the taxpayers? Why are new ideas and dissenting ideas so scary that the instinct is to deny them sunlight so that they may not grow?
I urge the members of this city to attend the occasional committee meeting and watch your council members at work. It may not be as entertaining, but it is cheaper than a movie, and worthy of your time. I also call upon the members of our council to permit a minimum amount of debate for any issue that comes before you, regardless of how your caucus intends to vote. Not a one of you knows everything about any particular issue and you will not melt if exposed to the opinions of the other side.