Sometimes a headline story has a happy ending. Instead of a confrontation, the March 21 Bloomington City Council meeting provided a look at how the proposed new “listening session” could make citizen input direct, immediate and, more importantly, productive.
The evening began with a room full of upset citizens probably twenty, each with a sign that said ‘Save Public Comment”, and a council prepared for some possibly unpleasant interactions. But it ended with a directive to the city staff resulting directly from citizen/council interactions.
The council was proposing removing public comment on items not on the council meeting agenda to its own, separate meeting, which was referred to as a ‘listening session’. City Attorney Melissa Manderschied laid out the proposed changes.
Mandershied explained that the council expressed concern that some citizens were afraid to speak at a formal council meeting, on videotape.
Mandershied and staff were proposing that the “listening session” happen before the formal city council meeting. Details of the new meeting were unclear, and council members questioned Mandershied and other staff about whether the listening session would be recorded, how often and when listening sessions would be held, and council rules changes necessary to accomplish all this. It became clear that city staff had left a number of these points for the council to decide.
The protesters were surprised that eliminating public comment was not actually what was intended. The council was surprised that so many details still had to be resolved.
What happened next was a serious discussion between council members and the citizens who had come to protest the proposed action. They discussed what the new listening session should look like, how it should be managed, and what the rules should be. In short, we ended up seeing a model listening session, watching the idea evolve with direct citizen input and direct council response.
Gradually, council members reached a consensus that they should not vote on the change immediately, but instead send it back to staff to be fully developed.
There was citizen objection to not having a public record of each listening session; Councilmember Carter further explained her concern that some speakers had had their images taken from the official video and used by internet trolls to ridicule the speaker, which surprised some of the citizens who came to oppose the change. The back and forth between citizens and their representatives resulted in a consensus that there should be an audio tape of each listening session, but not a video, and that a public record would be available.
Mayor Busse expressed his dislike of having to sit “stone faced” while public comment was made under the current system – rules now forbid council from commenting or answering public questions – and the council made it clear they wanted the listening session to be a back and forth with the public they represent.
The proposal was sent back to the city staff to develop many details, including:
- A listening session before every council meeting
- The session to be longer than the existing 20 minute limit; a length of 45 minutes was proposed.
- The listening session would be audio taped and a record made public
- The current public comment period on business not on the council agenda would be eliminated
- The listening session would not become part of the council rules, but would have its own procedures to be posted at the entry table during each session-although this was not absolutely clear.
- Council members and citizens could actually talk to each other
- At councilmember Delassandro’s suggestion, staff would ensure the listening session provided means for disabled citizens to address the council and have ready access (the staff proposal was not clear whether the listening session might be in a room other than the council chambers)
- Citizens could – but would not be required to – sign up in advance and tell the city staff what issue they planned to bring up. This would allow staff to have the proper people actually at the listening session and possibly address the issue immediately, shortening response time to the citizen’s issue.
The discussion closed with a laugh after councilman Nelson asked his third or fourth “final question” – and promised it really would be his last; it wasn’t but the next one was.
Citizen comment in the atrium afterward was largely optimistic.