To witness an immediate and potent example of democracy in action is to see Geneva citizens speak up and hold their elected officials accountable during the public comment segment of every monthly City Council meeting. For decades, public comment took place near the beginning of Council meetings, but in January 2016, Mayor Ron Alcock inexplicably moved public comment to near the end of the meetings. This change would mean that citizens who want to comment would have to wait an additional one to two hours (on average) to speak.
After dozens of residents and a number of Councilors cried foul, City Council arrived at a “compromise” in which they created “two public comment periods” for each meeting, and it seemed that everyone who wasn’t paying attention saw the change as a win for the people, for cooperative governance and for accountability.
But after careful review of public comment records from the last four years, it’s evident that this “compromise” accomplished exactly what detractors feared: it will diminish or silence the voices of the people that the Mayor and Council have a responsibility to serve.
Comments about Comments
The ruckus began with an April 4th front page article in the Finger Lakes Times about Mayor Alcock’s decision to abruptly move public comment from near the beginning of Council meetings to near the end, without any prior discussion with Council. The issue was brought to the attention of the newspaper via an email discussion sparked by Ward 4 Councilor Ken Camera, who questioned the move. Alcock’s reasoning was this:
“[It was] to alleviate the time city staff had to stay at the meetings, those that we required to be there if there were any projects they are involved in that would be discussed by Council that night to be able to answer Council questions,” he said. “It seems like a practical use of everyone’s time to me. I feel the business of the city should come first.
At-Large Councilor Gordon Eddington was quite candid in intimating that the convenience of City employees was more important than the needs of the talkative constituents that he serves:
“Staff works all day, attends the meeting and is subject to off-topic conversation at time from council, as well as public comment going on and on.”
Camera, At-Large Councilor Mark Gramling, Ward 5 Councilor Jason Hagerman, and Ward 3 Councilor Steve Valentino all spoke against the move. They argued that it was unfair to require hard-working residents to stay late at Council meetings in order to share their concerns so that City employees (whose jobs require them to attend) could go home earlier, and that it made no sense for Council to discuss and vote on agenda items prior to public feedback on those issues.
Ultimately, the decision to move public comment, according to the city charter, lies solely in the hands of the Mayor. Even though the Mayor offered no specific and justifiable reason for the change and only vague references to productivity and efficiency, he asserted that he would not be returning public comment to its original spot in the agenda. However, he did state that:
“if there is a substantial amount of negative feedback from the residents, then we can always move it back.”
Substantial Negative Feedback
- During the next City Council meeting on April 6th, four city residents spoke against the change (with none in favor). The Mayor responded by stating that his decision would stand.
- Shortly thereafter, an online petition was started asking the Mayor to move public comment back to where it belonged. Within weeks, 131 Geneva residents signed the petition. The comments on this petition powerfully and passionately demonstrated why the change was unwarranted and unfair. There were no petitions supporting the public comment move.
- On May 1st, the Finger Lakes Times staff published an editorial stating that public comment should be moved back to the beginning of meetings.
- On May 3rd, the Times reported that Camera would be proposing a resolution to move public comment back to the beginning of meetings.
- There were no letters to the editor or editorials that were published in support of the Mayor.
At this point, it seemed the Mayor would have heard enough “substantial negative feedback” and that he would now keep his word to the people of Geneva.
Voices Compromised by a “Compromise”
At the May 4th Geneva City Council meeting, Camera proposed his resolution to move public comment back to its original slot, and also presented a printed copy of the online petition signatures to the Mayor and Council.
Mayor Alcock then unexpectedly proposed an amendment to Camera’s resolution, which would allow commenters speaking about topics on the evening’s City Council Agenda to speak at the beginning, while commenters addressing non-agenda items would wait until the end. The Mayor also proposed that all citizens would be required to sign up to speak by 3:00pm on the day of the meeting, either by telephoning the City Clerk’s office or signing up online.
After discussion, Council passed (by a 5-4 vote) this amended resolution:
- Public comments related to items on the evening’s agenda would take place at the beginning of meetings
- All other public comments would take place at the end of meetings
- All public commenters would be required to sign up prior to the 7pm start of the meetings.
And Mayor still did not offer any details regarding how the move would make meetings more “efficient” or “productive.”
The “compromise” was praised by the Councilors who voted for it. The Finger Lakes Times editorial board said “we applaud the creation of two public comment periods” in a piece that also supported the Mayor’s questionable characterization of the public comment debate as a “distraction,” but the Times failed to explore any potential negative impact of the new, unjustified public comment format.
Rather than rely on opinions and rhetoric to support the change to public comment, let’s consider the data and see how this alteration has unquestionably impaired the ability of Genevans to publicly and directly engage their elected officials.
Public Comment: By the Numbers
After reviewing the minutes (available on the City of Geneva website) from the last four full years of City Council meetings (2012 through 2015), I tallied the numbers of commenters who showed up to speak on agenda items, and those who spoke on non-agenda items.
For three of those years, there was one month from each year that included a “hot-button” agenda item, and an unusually large number of residents showed up to speak on those evenings. In August 2012, a large number turned out to speak about funding the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center. In June 2014, it was the downtown fire horn discussion, and in July 2015, the temporary closing of Linden Street to vehicle traffic. Because those three months were rare occurrences and statistical anomalies, I set them aside and tallied the comments from the remaining 45 months of meetings. Here are the results:
2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (45 total months)
- 119 – Non-agenda commenters
- 30 – Agenda item commenters
- 80% of all commenters spoke about non-agenda issues
So, the “compromise” turns out to be this:
Mayor’s Original Plan
100% of all public comments moved without justification to the end of City Council meetings, with no signup required.
City Council’s “Compromise”
80% of all public comments are moved without justification to the end of City Council meetings, and anyone wishing to speak during public comment must be there by 7:00pm to sign up.
(Interestingly, when examining only the most recent years of 2014-2015, the percentage of off-agenda commenters jumps to 88%.)
With no clear reason for the move in the first place, and with a “compromise” that still significantly increases the difficulty for concerned citizens to participate in city government, it’s hard to find anything to celebrate about this undemocratic, unnecessary change.
Exactly how does moving public comment create more “efficiency” and “productivity” by allowing other “city business” to be conducted prior to allowing the public to speak? That’s a very good question that the Mayor seemed determined not to answer.
In the past four years, with the exception of three outlying months, there was an average of 3.31 citizens participating in public comment each month. If those commenters each spoke for an average of 4 minutes, that would mean that public comment takes around thirteen minutes per meeting.
If the same average number of commenters continue to show up to speak during the later public comment time period, the meetings would require the same total amount of time. However, later public comment means that the occasional City employee would go home from the meeting an average of thirteen minutes earlier, while 4 out of every 5 public comment participants would have to stay an additional one to two hours later.
It is bewildering how this change can be presented as a way to improve efficiency and productivity.
All of the public feedback that the Mayor received was negative, and his claim that the issue was “small” and a “distraction” shows a disquieting lack of concern for the valid criticisms he faced from well over 100 citizens (with zero comments in support) about his unwarranted tampering with the democratic process in the city. It also speaks to the amount of respect and consideration he gives to the people he is charged to serve.
It was also argued by Alcock and others that public government meetings in other cities, towns and counties have more restrictive public comment guidelines compared to Geneva. But to paraphrase Councilor Camera, the situation in Geneva was a “manufactured problem,” and the Mayor made the change without being prompted and without any open deliberation. Comparing the new, unjustified public comment format to other more restrictive formats in other cities is irrelevant. It’s a talking point that, ironically, serves as a distraction from the problem that the Mayor created.
Guessin’ the Lesson
This debacle illustrates that, if unchecked, our elected leaders can do whatever they’d like, regardless of whether or not it serves the greater good of Geneva, if they can distract the public from the facts of the issue. We like to think of ourselves as a “uniquely urban” city, with forward-thinking people and a high standard of ethics and practices. Yet on the issue of public comment, the Mayor (and his supporters on City Council) were able to take a step backwards in terms of transparency, accountability and civic engagement, while painting their failure to best serve the citizenry as a “compromise” that created a better environment for democratic participation than before.
Unless we take the time to examine the details and pay attention to the shell game that’s being played, we the people will end up on the losing end, and those whose salaries we pay and whose budgets we fund will be able to do whatever they want for the benefit of a few.
One might hope that the public comment issue would be revisited in the future, but it seems unlikely considering the lengths that the Mayor, Council and local media went to convince the public that the whole debate was an unimportant waste of time and that the “compromise” was a positive change for the City.