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Our view: Two good ideas for comments at city meetings

A discussion Monday by the Grand Forks Committee of the Whole could lead to changes for public comments at city meetings.

Herald pull quote, 8/13/22
Herald graphic.
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It was a few months ago and we can’t recall her name. She sat silently through a long City Council meeting – one that lasted hours and included a number of heated comments about the proposed Fufeng corn mill project – before finally getting an opportunity to speak about an issue that is most certainly not making headlines in the community.

She rose and asked council members why the city is spending so much money on street lights.

She had waited hours – possibly four hours or more – to ask that simple question.

When it was explained by council members that street lights are actually quite an expensive commitment, she seemed satisfied and left. It was a remarkable example of a concerned resident making a commitment to get to the bottom of city business.

A discussion Monday by the Grand Forks Committee of the Whole could lead to changes for public comments at city meetings – one that might spark suspicion, but others that will better accommodate the attendees like that woman who waited so long to ask about street lights.

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The conversation Monday by the committee – which consists entirely of members of City Council but which meets every other week to strategize and consider upcoming decisions – included:

● Moving the comment portion of City Council meetings forward, to an earlier place in the meeting’s agenda. At present, comments are taken at the end of meetings.

● Increasing the per-speaker time limit from three minutes to five.

● Possibly shutting down comments on the live broadcast that is streamed on Facebook.

The members also discussed disruptive behavior. After a briefing by an assistant city attorney, the council agreed that if audience members are being disruptive, meetings will be paused until order is restored.

Monday, it was only a discussion. Later in the week, Council President Dana Sande told the Herald no vote is required, since the council already has the authority to make the changes. But he said it still could be brought to a vote just to ratify regulations that already exist.

That ratification is a good idea, to show that the council is – presumably – unified in its approach to public comments. Likewise, the ideas to move comments forward in the meeting and to extend speaker time from three minutes to five are good and should be pursued. The latter will hopefully allow attendees to better state their concerns without being cut off, which tends to spark anger and often leads to disruptions at council meetings.

We urge the council to go slow, however, with any discussion that suggests ending social media comments. Certainly, those comments sometimes are vicious, unjust and do not move the dialogue forward in a constructive way. But they do provide a true open forum for a public entity. Taking away that forum might suggest the council doesn’t want to hear from constituents – even though some of those comments are likely coming from places far from Grand Forks.

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