The recent 6-1 decision by City Council to limit the time dedicated to open public comment at the beginning of their monthly Saturday public hearings, while allowing that open public comment to continue at the meeting’s conclusion, is a welcome change to the way Mayor Silberberg has been running Council meetings since her election. The vote was also unnecessary had the Council abided by its own rules limiting that discussion period to 30 minutes, a rule Mayor Silberberg voted for herself. Yet at her first public hearing as Mayor, Ms. Silberberg personally invited individuals in favor of her ethics reform proposal to speak though the item was not docketed and was thus not publicly noticed to citizens. That public comment period lasted more than three hours and 20 minutes. Subsequent meetings have averaged public comment periods of over an hour. Officially docketed items, with their own list of presenters and speakers, must wait until the open mic session is finished.
While it is a mayor’s job to run public meetings, it must be within the boundaries of the rules already adopted by the governing body. These rules are adopted to engender order and reliability in the public process. In Alexandria, that process had become unreliable and disjointed. Citizens have been forced to wait for hours for docketed items to be discussed by the Council with the most egregious example being the December 17 meeting where school children and their parents waited to testify regarding the Patrick Henry School construction project, some leaving that evening thinking that the item would not be debated at all that day. Such a system is also unfair to those persons, often small business owners, who have hired lawyers to represent them on land use issues; attorneys rarely work pro bono while waiting for their client’s issue to come forward. It has also been unsettling that some open mic speakers have been allowed to malign public and private individuals with impunity and without offering proof or any facts regarding the allegations; such conduct has no place in the open comment period and past mayors have acted to rule it out of order. Further, as aptly noted by Council members Chapman and Bailey, all members of Council need to control the urge to address each speaker or members of the audience.
The Mayor suggested that City staff presentations be cut to allow more time for non-docketed items at the meeting’s start and called Vice Mayor Wilson’s proposal “undemocratic”. This makes no sense to us as staff presentations are usually concise and factual. With regard to democracy in action, while it can be messy, it is up to the Mayor to run meetings in an orderly manner that allows citizens to speak to the publicly noticed issues being discussed and voted on that day. During weather-related emergency meeting delays, the Council might even consider dispensing with the open mic period altogether until a subsequent meeting. We agree with the Vice Mayor that it is time for the Council to focus their time on the docketed items “that affect people in their communities”.