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Tacoma City Council votes to give Citizens Forum a tweak, but not a full overhaul

Devon Baldwin, 18, speaks out against Puget Sound Energy's proposed Port of Tacoma liquefied-natural gas plant during the Citizens Forum at the Tacoma City Council on March 21, 2017. The council is considering revamping the forum’s format.
Devon Baldwin, 18, speaks out against Puget Sound Energy's proposed Port of Tacoma liquefied-natural gas plant during the Citizens Forum at the Tacoma City Council on March 21, 2017. The council is considering revamping the forum’s format. jbessex@gateline.com

Tacoma’s Citizens Forum doesn’t look to be changing much after all. At least, not right away.

The Tacoma City Council decided Tuesday to back away from a proposal by Councilwoman Lauren Walker Lee to suspend the current format of the monthly Citizens Forum. Her original plan would have reduced the number of forums each year, taken the forum to individual council districts instead of holding it at council chambers downtown and ended the live broadcast of the event. It also would not have required all council members to be present for each forum.

Walker Lee’s reasoning: The forum has gotten increasingly nasty, with personal attacks, veiled threats and vitriol from some speakers who take to the podium in three-minute intervals to speak their mind about issues facing the city on the second Tuesday of each month.

She noted that voices often are drowned out, and unpopular viewpoints booed. Some residents can’t make it to the meeting, or don’t have time to wait hours for their turn to speak.

And the format, in which residents pour their hearts out and the council politely says “thank you” at the end, doesn’t allow for dialogue, a major point of frustration for both council members and speakers.

The outcry in response to Walker Lee’s proposal to end the forum’s current format was loud and angry at last week’s meeting. Between then and Tuesday, Walker Lee said she spoke to every member of the current City Council and the four incoming council members who will take office January and read the comments she received. Then, she offered a compromise:

▪ The monthly Citizens Forum will continue to take place in council chambers (recorded and broadcast on TV Tacoma), and not out in the districts, as previously proposed

▪ When new council members take office, the council will negotiate a contract with the Center for Dialog and Resolution (at a cost of $25,000) to potentially figure out a new format for Citizens Forum, or work on ways to improve it

▪ Her amended proposal allows the council the freedom to hold Citizens Forum in places other than council chambers, but doesn’t rule out council chambers

▪ There will be no Citizens Forum in January, “so the new council and the new mayor have an opportunity to draft the contract with the Center for Dispute Resolution … and determine the rules for the February meeting,” she said.

Many who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting were relieved the council had backed away from suspending the forum but said they still felt like the council didn’t want to hear them. A few reminded the council that while some voices are repetitive around subjects like opposition to a liquefied-natural gas plant that’s under construction on the Tideflats, many come to plead individual issues and end up getting results from taking the time to do it. Some recommended that they more strictly enforce the rules to make the forum more orderly and less time-consuming in the future.

Council members said revamping Citizens Forum might be a good idea but said it might be a good task for the next council.

“What this doesn’t do yet is address the issue I also very much agree we need to figure out how to fix … that is this notion that we all need to feel like we’re being heard. We need to have acknowledgment that you feel heard and also some understanding about what are the next steps,” said Councilman Ryan Mello.

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud

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