Matt Driscoll

Canceling Citizens Forum is a tone deaf response that would be a mistake for Tacoma

Marilyn Kimmerling leads the room in a protest song against Puget Sound Energy's proposed Port of Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant during the Citizens Forum on March 21, 2017. The City Council is considering a plan to alter the format of the monthly forum.
Marilyn Kimmerling leads the room in a protest song against Puget Sound Energy's proposed Port of Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant during the Citizens Forum on March 21, 2017. The City Council is considering a plan to alter the format of the monthly forum. jbessex@gateline.com

Former Tacoma City Councilman David Boe has described it as “messy.”

It can also be called brutal, awkward and often difficult to watch.

And that’s on a good night.

Citizens Forum — a nearly 25-year-old exercise in democracy, designed to give average Tacoma residents a monthly chance to address their elected officials during City Council meetings — can be all of these things. Lately, it’s often devolved into an hours-long televised sideshow of shouting, name calling and general ugliness.

That doesn’t mean it should be done away with. An attempt to do just that, which is now under consideration by the council, is reactionary and tone deaf, at best.

The City Council should step back for a moment and consider the message such a statement would send.

Citizens Forum, which is televised on TV Tacoma, is typically held at the end of the second council meeting of the month. The resolution in front of the City Council proposes axing it for at least a year, and replacing it with untelevised monthly public forums in council districts across the city. The effort is described as a pilot project.

Such a move certainly wouldn’t send a message that suggests citizens’ voices are valued. In fact, it would be a clear signal of the opposite. Not only would it drastically alter the access constituents have to their elected officials, taking it off TV would limit opportunities for people to be heard by a wider audience.

If there’s a bright side, it’s that the resolution, sponsored by Councilwoman Lauren Walker Lee, provides a good opportunity to thoughtfully consider the forums current flaws, of which there are a few.

Walker’s resolution aims to address many of them, including that:

▪ Voices are often drowned out, and certain issues often dominate.

▪ It can be difficult for Tacoma residents to attend, let alone wait for hours to speak.

▪ It rarely, if ever, represents the full breadth of the city’s population and concerns.

▪ The format, which limits responses from council members, doesn’t feel anything like real dialogue.

All of this is unquestionably true. And what’s equally true — though unspoken in the resolution’s text — is that the tone and tenor of Citizens Forum have taken a decided turn for the worse in recent years. As tempers have flared over methanol and liquefied natural gas, council chambers have become home to a combustible mix of existential environmental fears and super-charged tension.

Point blank, it’s gotten truly nasty. There’s good reason to suggest that changes are needed, and it’s only natural for those with a seat on the dais to be tired of it.

Still, the resolution before the council is out of touch and reminiscent of an ill-advised comment outgoing councilman Joe Lonergan made earlier this year when he suggested that addressing the City Council during Citizens Forum is a privilege that the good people of Tacoma should be thankful for.

No, it’s really not. In fact, it’s an honor for elected officials to serve, and any attempt to limit or curtail the access citizens have to their elected officials — intentional or not — can only be seen as counterproductive.

“It’s consistent with the First Amendment right to petition — it’s an opportunity for people, if they have the courage to do it, to get up and stand at a podium and state your case,” former Mayor Bill Baarsma has said of Citizens Forum. “It’s an opportunity for people to express concerns.”

So what should be done? I’m not a Mensa member, but the answer seems obvious.

Monthly public forums in council districts across the city, as the resolution calls for, giving citizens an opportunity for direct interaction with council members, are a good idea. Let’s make them happen.

Let’s also make sure to get the word out about these forums to all of Tacoma’s diverse communities, so even more of the city’s residents have an opportunity to be involved.

Let’s schedule them at times that make it possible for as many people as possible to attend.

Let’s allow for a true back-and-forth with council members during these forums, unlike the way Citizens Forum operates, so they don’t feel one-sided and procedural.

In other words, keep the Citizens Forum we’ve come to know and sometimes loathe, and add the new, different, perhaps even better meetings Walker is proposing.

All of it would help Tacoma’s democratic process, I’m sure of it.

Because while Citizens Forum may sometimes get ugly, it’s also valuable.

If we need evidence of the merit of Citizens Forum, it’s not hard to find.

On a recent Tuesday night, Downtown on the Go program coordinator Hally Bert waited hours to give the council — and the televised audience at home, watching via TV Tacoma — a three-minute update on the agency’s “Light up your ride!” event. On Oct. 29, more than 100 bike lights were handed out to commuters and community members along the Prairie Line Trail.

I had no idea. It was a small but important tidbit that I learned thanks to Citizens Forum.

Knowledge like this, and the opportunity to share it, is part of what makes a citizenry truly engaged.

There are other advantages to Citizens Forum, like residents having a chance to advocate for increased pedestrian safety, pothole repairs or municipal broadband. It can be measured in the number of times a voice that wouldn’t otherwise be heard gets the podium, and three minutes before the council and on TV.

The value of Citizens Forum can be found in regular Tacomans having a guaranteed chance to be heard and feel heard.

Taking that away would be a terrible mistake.

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