How to be heard

The way winter has persisted, especially after we had a few days of Southern spring, has everyone feeling peevish, and Town Council members aren’t immune. It didn’t help matters Monday night when the council meeting started off with an act of civil disobedience: Several people signed up to filibuster in order to draw attention to the specious firing of two sanitation workers.

I understand the protesters’ motivation to keep the issue alive until council discusses it in public. But isn’t the hope that council might overturn the town manager’s decision? The filibustering Monday night risked pushing some council members to become even more entrenched in their decision not to consider the issue with an open mind.

The filibustering under the guise of petitions to council took up the first two hours of the meeting. Even though one presentation for a special use permit request was withdrawn by the applicant, the council meeting didn’t end until 11 p.m. Laurin Easthom gave up sometime after 10:30.

Because it is in the best interest of all of us to have council make decisions before they become overly fatigued, Matt Czajkowski suggested that petitions be heard at the end of the meeting. Sally Greene objected, saying that petitioners might have children and babysitters they need to go home to. Czajkowski pointed out that other presenters, including town staff, might also. Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt countered that he could talk to petitioners and ask them to consolidate their points to avoid repetition. Greene touched a nerve when she implied that might be perceived as stifling public comment.

Donna Bell said she instructs prospective petitioners on how to be more effective in getting their message across. I hope she tells them to face council, not the audience, when they speak. Michelle Laws, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP could have taken a leadership role in effective communication but dropped the ball completely Monday night, as she had during a town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. David Price last week. At that meeting, Price’s staff wouldn’t let her cut ahead of the line of residents waiting to speak after she had spoken three times already, so she sat in her seat and spoke loudly to those around her, drowning out Price and others. Former Mayor Kevin Foy moderated the event, looking tanned and fit and a good 40 pounds lighter since he was on council. (From where I sat and the way he kept his hands clasped, I couldn’t tell whether he still wears his wedding ring.) Foy had to shush Laws that night, as Kleinschmidt had to Monday so that others could be heard.

Civil disobedience, to be most effective, should be a poke strong enough to get council’s attention without making them harden their defenses. Strength is in the number of people who speak, not the length of time they take at the podium. No point lobbying for change, if you can’t engage the decision makers to listen.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Terri Buckner

     /  March 30, 2011

    I was sitting behind Michelle on Monday night and never heard her speak loudly or be shushed. Nor do I agree that the petitioners were filibustering. My impression from sitting in the audience for 3 weeks running now is that council members did listen more intently this week than they did the week previously when the petitioners were angry and calling for the manager to be fired. Based on several recent threads, it seems to me that watching council meetings on TV presents a very different perspective on the social environment of the meeting.

    At a time when less than 40% of local citizens vote and when the town is pleading for people to sign up for advisory councils, I think Council needs to respect the passion and dedication of those who are fighting for worker rights, even if that means their tightly packed agendas get off schedule. The petitioners are doing what we need young and disenfranchised people to do, they are speaking up and invoking their rights and obligations as citizens.

    I appreciate that Council members have day jobs, but not a single one of them was unaware of the long meeting times when they choose to run for office. The issues raised by the petitioners on Monday night overlapped, worker rights, racism, builders finding loopholes in the neighborhood conservation district restrictions, and affordable housing. My hope is that the council was listening and will undertake a broader discussion on how we as a community maintain our historically black population and neighborhoods in the face of gentrification and recession.

  2. Linda Convissor

     /  March 30, 2011

    I just want to second Terri’s comment that watching the CHTC meeting on TV or computer is not being the same as being in the Council Chambers. I’ve attended so many Council meetings that people often think I am a Town staff member. But as the quality of the meeting videos has improved, I’ve taken to watching many of them at home, rather than attending. While I think it’s wonderful that the Town broadcasts the meetings, I am very aware that when I watch on computer, I am, literally and figuratively, not getting the whole picture. If you really want to know what’s going on, you need to be in the room.