KRWG

Goodman: Let's Grow, Not Reduce, Public Comment

Dec 3, 2017

Credit peter goodman

Commentary: County Commission Chair Isabella Solis has suggested diminishing public comment at commission meetings and called for more respect for commissioners. These issues are both topical and interrelated. We citizens are commissioners' “bosses”. Is there irony in advocating respect for bosses but telling yours they take too much time? 

Solis wants to eliminate the general comment period – not public comment on specific agenda items. She reportedly says general public comment takes too much time.

I sympathize. Some commission meetings have been marathons. I get impatient when someone spends three minutes on Agenda 21 or how George Soros is responsible for violence in Ferguson.

But general public input on county business is important. We're a democracy. It's essential that people be heard – and know they're being heard. We need more ways people can engage with local government, not fewer. 

Solis also reportedly wants county employees to respect her because she's the boss. I understand that too. I've seen people express their differences with commissioners very vividly. Before Ms. Solis's election, I watched DASO deputies show more extreme disgust with the commissioners than anything I've seen directed at her. 

Courtesy and respect are related qualities, but distinct. We should speak and behave courteously to each other – particularly in political settings, where we're often discussing issues on which we have strong and honest disagreements. That applies to citizens, commissioners, and employees. I try to express political differences directly but collegially – although I sometimes fail.

Sounds trite, but true respect must be earned. My respect for Ms. Solis rests on conversations we've had, not on her title. 

I've never respected anyone simply because of his or her position. First-grade teacher, law school professor, or millionaire client. Particularly bosses. 

We've all had bosses who want it done their way and do not tolerate questions or new ideas. There are urgent situations when that may be necessary. But as a daily attitude, in academia or in law, journalism, or business, it's counterproductive.

When I started as a lawyer, some partners ordered everyone around and didn't tolerate questions or suggestions. Others welcomed questions and suggestions from new lawyers. They listened, and either explained why I was wrong or adopted the suggestion. I learned from them. I also respected them, and they me.

The dictatorial mode of supervision often masks insecurity about the supervisor's own knowledge and competence. Welcoming – and not merely tolerating – challenging questions can be a sign that “the boss” has a healthy confidence in what s/he is doing. Law, business, medicine, and county government present difficult questions. No one's perfect, Welcoming others' ideas maximizes the boss's chance to reach the wisest solution. 

Insisting on respect is kind of like insisting on love. You can't force either. The insistence proclaims that love or respect is missing; but it's highly unlikely to create or revive what's missing.

If Solis means to call for courtesy, I respectfully second that. Like oil, courtesy can prevent undue friction and damage when things get moving fast. Life's too short for unnecessary frustrations. Discourtesy invites more of the same, deepening everyone's frustration.

Strident partisanship surrounds us – just when we have many hard truths to face, and need our neighbors' help. 

Respectfully: the Commission should keep public comment, perhaps add more ways for meaningful public comment; but commenters should express ideas and facts, not personal attacks. We're all trying. I think Solis is. We can do this.