Council member Kris Gulick’s voice was quivering in anger at last night’s City Council meeting as he vented for nearly 10 minutes about The Gazette’s coverage of the council’s change in the public comment period at its regular meetings.
The newspaper did give it the old one-two-three-four punch.
It all began on the front page a week ago Monday with a story headlined, “Lights, Camera, Silence.”
The news story reported on something new: In recent months the nine-member council decided, no matter what, that it was not going to engage in any kind of back-and-forth with citizens who come to the microphone to speak to the council with the cameras running. The first sentence in the story was this: “Has the era of Carol Martin at City Hall come to an end?”
Martin has made that a second career, spanning 15 years and four mayoral administrations, coming to the council microphone, trying to mix it up a bit. A few other regulars do as well. Often there has been give and take.
But the new council policy has put an end to all that. That was the point of the story. Mayor Kay Halloran and Brian Fagan, mayor pro tem, both explained why. They said citizens could talk to council members before and after meetings, and besides, many of the questions had to do with the day-to-day running of the city, which isn’t the job of the part-time council. Council members are policymakers, they said.
In a week’s time, both of the newspaper’s columnists weighed in as did the editorial page. None of the three took the part of the council.
Prior to Wednesday night’s council meeting, council member Fagan made note that he wouldn’t mind a go at a guest opinion in The Gazette to try to explain the council’s thinking on public comment. Even council member Jerry McGrane, a long-time neighborhood leader and champion of the regular person, said he felt the council was in a “Catch 22” when confronted at meetings with small details often coming from left field.
Council member Monica Vernon began Wednesday evening’s council meeting with the meeting prayer, fashioning it with a hope for guidance on just how council members should listen and talk in their roles as council members. She had noticed the newspaper coverage, too.
Then Gulick vented. At one point he said he took “particular offense,” and at another he said the newspaper coverage was “particularly offensive.” He called the coverage “propaganda.”
In truth, Gulick has much standing to weigh in on this.
Early on, after his election in November 2005 to the District 1 council seat, Gulick began holding regular quarterly meetings for constituents. And not just to glad hand. His meetings include agendas and offer some meat on the issues of the day at City Hall. People actually come.
More recently, Gulick borrowed from the Iowa caucus landscape, in which presidential candidates end up in living rooms getting close and personal. No sooner had Hillary and Obama left town, and there was Gulick, out with something he called “Council Conversations.” And now he’s spending Saturday mornings for a time on the couch or at the kitchen table down the block and around the corner.
The point is that Gulick makes times for the public, as do others on the council. In the midst of his vent on Wednesday evening, he made a stab at quantifying his availability, saying in the last couple months alone he had attended 60 meetings on city business at which no fewer than 40 of those meetings provided an opportunity for citizens to talk or visit with him. That doesn’t include the phone calls and e-mails, he added.
In an interview prior to the Gazette news story on public comment last week, council member Fagan was quick to note that he’s a big fan of “Prime Minister’s Questions,” which airs on TV and features the British prime minister in the House of Commons taking questions from every direction.
Asked if something was lost now that council members weren’t willing to engage the likes of Carol Martin while the cameras were rolling at City Hall, Fagan said it was different from the House of Commons. He said something about the prime minister and the legislators operating with the same world of facts, which, he suggested, wasn’t what always happened in the council chambers at City Hall.
Gulick, an accountant and business consultant, talked about the “operational” aspects of city government – the day-to-day – that the city manager and department heads are knee-deep in. He also talked about good “governance,” and said having a meeting agenda and sticking to it was a way to achieve that.
But those who have lamented the change at public comment periods – a unique moment in the life of the council when cameras are rolling — have wondered if everything is operational in the city’s still-new, 2-year-old council/manager government in which council members here are now part-timers?
When Carol Martin or someone else comes to the microphone and asks why the city is spending about $100,000 for a parks study from the same Colorado consultant it paid a similar amount to about four years ago, is that “operational?”
The last time The Gazette took a stab at measuring who watches council meetings on the local cable TV station, about 4 percent of residents said they did kind of regularly. That’s a number of people, a number large enough for it to make sense for the council to continue to tape its meetings for rebroadcast. Would it really hurt, some have asked, for a council member or two to take a stab at answering a question about parks consultants with the cameras rolling?
Joel Miller, the Linn County auditor who until January had been mayor of Robins, has said he usually liked to answer questions at meetings, “ especially when I knew the answer.”
If nothing else, if council members choose in lockstep not to respond to Carol Martin and others, it is a new practice at City Hall. You decide if it’s good or bad. But it is new.