Here’s My Take: Listening to the Public

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By Dr. Gloria Alkire

Listening to the Newport Beach community speak out regarding the fire-ring controversy at the City Council meeting last month prompted not only thoughts about whether the rings should stay or go, but also the importance of public input and ideas, and how public input should be conducted by the Newport Beach City Council.

Having attended or watched council meetings for various reasons for more than three years, I have come to understand three things: (1) how valuable and necessary the public discourse is, (2) how time consuming it is for both the speakers/community members and the councilmember’s, who must listen and hopefully consider the points of view being offered, and (3) how to expedite public comment so that people are not at a meeting until very late at night.

We all have much to learn about using our time wisely.

In Newport Beach if you choose to speak on an issue on the agenda you have three minutes. You as the speaker need to be prepared, get to the point quickly and make your comments concise. I’d also suggest that, if applicable, you not only state your opinion but also offer a constructive suggestion or solution. It is easy to complain about how something is not working or should not be built or proposed, but how will the change or non-change you are seeking improve life for all citizens in the city?

The fire-ring issue got at well over 20 people to the speaker’s podium. The public comments went on for almost two hours, with the speakers weighing in on both sides. Mayor Nancy Gardner asked the audience – after many speakers had expressed their thoughts – if there were any new thoughts to be offered, to help the audience understand that the council’s attention span was near the breaking point.

Still, speakers went to the podium and many of the thoughts presented resembled those already spoken. I clearly understand that if you have sat through the night until 9 or 10 o’clock, you want to have your say, and that you also think that the more that come and mirror your thoughts the better chance you have at getting the council to agree. However, it may be wise to consider that if your carefully thought-out three-minute speech already has been delivered by at least 12 people, the Council may have stopped listening. And yes, there is power in numbers, but the councilmembers can see how many people are sitting in the audience and have a pretty good idea why they are there.

Nevertheless, there were a lot of thought-provoking comments made. I was happy I lasted through all of it, because there were new things to learn on both sides.

From this issue and many others that have come before the council, we clearly understand the necessisity for public comment, individual and collective knowledge, and different points of view to help foster the best possible decisions for all citizens.

As a former superintendent of schools, I have listened my share of public comments and angry groups. What I learned from dealing with hot-button issues in the community was to let people have their say early in the evening.

As community leaders, we know what agenda items are going to be contentious and need to plan for them.

The board president and myself could anticipate which items would spark public outcry, and would put those items of most interest on the agenda early. This not only honors the public’s right to speak, but it often prevents greater anger in a crowd of people forced to wait till late in the night to have their say.

I would suggest to our council that they consider changing the order of the agenda for these kinds of community concerns, so that citizens are able to express their opinions, ideas, and suggestions early in the evening. People are fresher and more considerate when they are not tired. The council can then finish the public’s business knowing that the items have been vetted by the citizens, and it can use the information in its deliberations. Everyone gets to participate in a process that honors and respects meaningful and important input before the vote is taken. It is the democratic process, and it has great value to a thoughtful citizenry.

Lastly, one possible thought on the fire rings. What if we kept some of the rings farthest from homes and the boardwalk and carefully monitored them during a two- or three-month period yearly? Groups and families would have to sign up for them in advance, and agree to follow rules regarding their use.

And that’s my input.

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  1. Wonderful, thoughtful “take” on the issues Dr. Alkire.

    Here’s hoping that you become a regular contributor…you have much to offer to the “public discourse” and the City of Newport Beach!.

    By the way, great idea regarding the fire rings, I was mindful of the memories and history families have, coming to the beach, enjoying an open fire and the fun that comes with it…but I was leaning more towards the health aspect of the situation, your idea really gave me a new perspective on that issue, Thank You.