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Lines of Communication 

Limiting the open forum at City Council meetings underlines the need to find new ways to share information with our leaders

Kudos to City Council President Ben Stuckart for taking on what has become an annoyance, an embarrassment and often a launch pad for bloviated obstructionism. I refer to the civic joke we refer to as the "open forum."

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Our ace bloviator, George McGrath, yowls about freedom of speech being denied. Nonsense. Stuckart is correct: No one has the unlimited right to speak at a city council meeting. (In fact, this is why we have sergeants-at-arms.) Call it a tradition, or more accurately, as Stuckart does, a privilege; it isn't a right. If the bloviators want to exercise their freedom of speech, they can walk across the street and stand on a soapbox, as they do in London's famed Hyde Park.

On Monday, the council endorsed Stuckart's proposal to limit the open forum to once a month by a 5-2 vote. A good move, yet the forum's problems actually go way beyond our local gadflies. Yes, our civic life would benefit from a more enlightened electorate and a more informed council, and unfortunately our forum serves neither purpose.

Consider just one example: the three-minute rule. It makes no sense. Some people actually have something of importance to say, and they might need more than three minutes to say it. Instead, they get cut off. Nor is there any time for dialogue between speakers and members of the council. So what's the point?

I envision a complete overhaul. My suggestion:

1. The council holds no more than two open forums per month, similar to Stuckart's proposal, and perhaps modified to impose a total-minute rule.

2. Once a month, the council holds a formal hearing wherein they call specific people to testify. Hearings, after all, are the stuff of the legislative processes at the state and national levels, so why not, on a limited basis, at the local level?

Think of the many topics that might be fleshed out through formal hearings, such as questions surrounding the future of zoning. How many people actually understand how "form-based zoning" differs from what we have traditionally used? Of course, there are issues focusing on law enforcement, urban growth, the condition of the aquifer and the state of the local economy (which we don't understand very well). The possibilities are endless.

One critical caveat: PowerPoint must be prohibited. PowerPoint is a conversation killer. Photos are fine; drawings, OK. But PowerPoint? I don't want to see it ever again. I know that this new rule might disorient some staff, who have gotten used to regurgitating what amounts to glitzy outlines.

If we truly do seek to inform the council and enlighten the citizenry while providing a forum for those whose opinions the council might benefit from, then I suggest that formal hearings could certainly help — they could instruct, lend transparency and better define our councilmembers.

Ideally, hearings would include bringing in outside experts. During the '90s, the EWU Summer Session Symposium Series that I directed brought to town any number of highly regarded writers, architects, policy analysts, developers, former mayors, traffic engineers and the like. Our topics ranged from education to downtown revitalization to salmon recovery to issues of the day, such as the proposed Lincoln Street Bridge.

To address that very controversial issue, we sought out a traffic engineer who could bring a fresh perspective to the bear on the subject. Local preservationist Ron Wells put us onto Walter Kulash, a "New Urbanist" from Florida. We brought Kulash to Spokane, and by the time he left, he had, as Wells has said many times, "changed the debate over the Lincoln Street Bridge."

I suggest that we need more of this — especially if we want a council that isn't held hostage to old, entrenched, insular ways of thinking about public policy. We don't want staff excluded — indeed, staff would be vital — but we want the council free from insular perspectives.

Today, however, we have no format through which to better enlighten the public or inform the council. Our current open forum, even as improved by the Stuckart rule, too often provides us with little more than comic relief.

But, yes, one step at a time. For now, supporting the ideas put forth by Ben Stuckart provide us a good start. ♦

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