As we reported Friday, the Pensacola City Council on Monday will discuss a proposed rule change which would eliminate one of the two “Boyd Forum” public input sessions held at each council meeting, pushing the forum to the end of its sometimes four and five-hour-long meetings.
The fact that the council would even discuss such a proposal isn’t just disappointing — it’s inexcusable.
Government should seek to increase public participation in democracy — not to limit it. In many ways, Pensacola has been a leader in citizen engagement, with more ways than ever for citizens to interact with City Hall, including email, social media, its 311 platform, and more. But speaking at public meetings is the fundamental form of citizen participation in American democracy, dating back more than 200 years ago to the town meetings of New England.
This isn’t the first time Pensacola has tried to stifle citizen input. For years, the city’s Community Maritime Park Associates (CMPA) board met with its backs turned to the audience and routinely dismissed and stymied citizens who wanted to speak. In 2008, two citizens — Byron Keesler and LeRoy Boyd — took legal action, and the pressure pushed the city council to mandate a public forum at CMPA meetings.
It looked as if the city might be on a different course in 2011, when council members voted to rename public forums in honor of Boyd, a longtime community activist and frequent speaker at council meetings who passed away the year before. At the time, the newly christened Boyd Forums were held once at the council’s Monday meetings and twice at its regular Thursday meetings, both before and after the council’s business. But in 2013, when the council traded its “Committee of the Whole” meetings for the more streamlined “Agenda Conference” format, the Monday Boyd Forums went away, and the amount of time each speaker was allowed was cut from four minutes down to three. Now, a proposed rule change threatens to cut public input opportunities even further.
If moving public input to the end of meetings doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider this: If the rule is changed, citizens wishing to speak to their city government about an issue not on the agenda could be forced to wait until 11:00 p.m. or later. One meeting in August lasted so long that the closing Boyd Forum didn’t begin until approximately 11:32 p.m. No one should have to sit and wait for six hours for their three minutes of speaking time. While some council members are retired or self-employed and can set their own schedules, most Pensacolians have to get up and go to work in the morning. They simply don’t have the luxury of waiting around at City Hall until almost midnight.
Pensacola should continue thinking of new ways to engage citizens instead of stifling speech and frustrating constituents. Other area governmental bodies, such as the Escambia County School Board and Board of County Commissioners, hold their open forums at the beginning of their meetings, and it seems to work just fine. Last time we checked, we haven’t heard any commissioners or school board members calling for a change.
One of the most troubling aspects of this proposed change is the fact that citizens don’t know where it originated. There’s no council member’s name attached to any of the proposed rule changes, and the city council’s chief staffer declined comment. We don’t know if the push to cut Boyd Forum in half is coming from a council member, a staff member, or elsewhere, and we don’t know why.
What we do know is that this proposal is intolerable, indefensible, and inexcusable. Our government does not belong to the city council, and it certainly doesn’t belong to the staff at City Hall. As Teddy Roosevelt said, “the government is us; we are the government, you and I.” Council members would be wise to remember that, and to reject this ill-conceived proposal quickly and decisively.