Tacoma Citizens Forum compromise offers hope

Opponents of Puget Sound Energy's proposed Port of Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant make their feelings known at the Citizens Forum before the Tacoma City Council last March.
Opponents of Puget Sound Energy's proposed Port of Tacoma liquefied natural gas plant make their feelings known at the Citizens Forum before the Tacoma City Council last March. News Tribune file photo

This is an updated version of a News Tribune editorial published earlier this week.

Things took a different turn this week with a controversial Tacoma City Council proposal to change the Citizens Forum.

Based on the increasing degradation of the open public forum over the past couple of years, we think a review and a retooling are overdue. But the amended plan adopted by the council Tuesday evening — which pushes the review process into January — is a reasonable path forward.

“The new council, not us, will be making the recommendations for how Citizens Forum takes shape,” said departing council member Lauren Walker Lee, who first proposed changing the forum and was harshly criticized by its defenders.

What started out 25 years ago as a once-a-month venue where citizens could raise any issue before the City Council – whether or not it was under official consideration on that particular Tuesday – was a noble idea. The council needs to hear regularly from citizens, even on issues not on the agenda.

But the Citizens Forum of today has warped that ideal. Too frequently over the last year or so, it’s been dominated by groups whose members hiss, boo, shout down or loudly laugh at speakers they disagree with. They launch personal attacks on individual council members and opposing commenters. They ignore the mayor’s requests for decorum. They extend their attacks to social media.

Even people who support Citizens Forum roughly as it exists today use words like brutal, nasty and messy to describe it.

That’s not productive democracy at work. Rather, it is a free-for-all dominated by bullies, people who harass and intimidate opponents to shut them up or make them afraid to challenge the mob.

We welcomed Walker Lee’s initial proposal to move the Citizens Forum out of the spotlight of television for at least a year and into individual council districts. She suggested meetings with fewer council members be scheduled at times and places that might attract a more diverse audience, including those who can’t make downtown meetings on Tuesday nights.

But we respect the council’s decision to retain the monthly forums in front of all nine council members. It also makes sense to take a breather in January while a new group of city leaders works on a fresh set of norms and rules. The goal should be fostering respectful give-and-take between the public and the council while making everyone feel safe enough to speak.

Perhaps, as departing Council member Marty Campbell suggested, it should lose the name Citizens Forum. After all, not everyone seeking an audience with local policymakers is a citizen. Even the best traditions need to be tweaked now and again.

The key surviving part of Walker Lee’s proposal is hiring the local Center for Dialog and Resolution to partner with the council. The mediation center can help figure out ways to encourage real engagement.

We’re glad the new council – with three new members and a new mayor in 2018 – will own the transition. They should quickly dig into the fine print on how many additional forums should be held outside City Hall each year, how they would be structured and what role the Center for Dialog and Resolution will play in all this.

What’s most important is that the City Council preserve the best of what Citizens Forums were designed to provide: ideas and commentary on issues beyond those prescribed on the council agenda.

It’s obvious to anyone that civic life in America has been debased in recent times. You can hear it in the vitriol of talk radio. You can see it in the shouting matches on some cable news programs. It’s on regular display in Congress, in the White House pressroom and on various noteworthy Twitter feeds.

All the more reason not to let the infection overwhelm civic discourse here in Tacoma.