We can’t eliminate discomfort
Democracy depends on real and meaningful ways for the governed to have a say in how they are governed. Part of the promise of local government is that it will make it possible for people to participate in decisions that directly affect their everyday life. When those who hold the direct reins of government propose to limit participation by people whose actions may cause discomfort (because we’re not talking about violence), democracy recedes into the distance.
On July 18, the Olympia City Council removed from its agenda an item that would have criminalized disrupting a Council meeting. While I am disheartened that this proposal even made it to the Council agenda, I am grateful that it brought to light the serious discussion we—the Council and the community—need to have about the value of open, accessible and transparent government.
That day, prior to the item being pulled from the agenda, Council members heard from many who were appalled and downright angry about the proposal. It’s clear that people care deeply about their right to know what their city government is doing and their right to have a safe public space to speak up. Many callers suggested that rather than shutting down meetings, we manage meetings well enough that business gets done and citizens feel welcomed.
I’ve served on the Council since January 2016. I watch week after week as people come to express passionate frustration over issues. Tension in the room can build and situations escalate when we demand that overwhelmed speakers be civil, patient, and deferential to our positions. The current situation benefits no one and does not serve democracy.
Disruption: It takes two to tango
It is difficult to continue to listen empathetically after receiving personal insults. Disrupted Council meetings have at times adjourned to a small conference room that limits public access. In truth, it is very challenging to manage a meeting where protestors intend to prevent us from conducting business. Then the question appears as: When a few people decide to take over the agenda do we stop reviewing the summer children’s lunch feeding program? Do we not recognize long-time community volunteers?
I see that community members sometimes feel their specific issues are not being addressed. But even as we take on these issues we have to be sure water is clean, city parks are open, and we have fire trucks available to respond to emergencies.
There are other, and I believe better, ways to manage contentious meetings. Councilmembers along with members of advisory boards and commissions recently participated in “Jurassic Parliament” about how to do so. Our trainer, Ann MacFarlane, made the point that the First Amendment applies to government meetings. Our job as elected leaders is to listen to each speaker as if they are the only person in the room and try to hear their concerns.
For me, creating opportunities for authentic dialogue that informs policy and action is the job of City Council. Our municipal code specifies that the Council is the legislative branch of local government while the City Manager and staff are assigned the executive and administrative role. Thus, City staff are technical experts and administrators. The Council should serve as the bridge between citizens and city government officials.
The City budget: A great place to start democratizing
Our current budget process is an example of where we could do better. Where we spend our money is the clearest expression of our real Olympia values and priorities. The current process offers few opportunities for questions or input on the draft budget. The Council has hearings on the budget, receives comments from the few people who have had time to read it, and passes it. Like many organizations, Olympia City Council focuses on the very small portion of the budget that is considered discretionary, spending hours debating where to put a $5,000 grant while giving scant consideration of the allocation of tens of millions of dollars.
We should open up our process in order to be clear about how its budget will affect real people. The impacts should be stated in writing in the budget document itself. Last year, I hosted an experimental People’s Budget Forum that asked a group of 60 or so people to state their priorities for spending by the city. I think it is time for the entire City Council to engage and host a forum to broadly consider city spending and income, before we make the final decision about what to include in the budget. We spend a great deal of time and energy maintaining a long-range plan for growth. Perhaps it is time to similarly consider a long-range look at spending and income. We need to hear from a broad spectrum of people as to their priorities for how we spend money, rather than the city simply telling people what will happen with their tax dollars.
City Council should be listening respectfully to many, many voices: small retailers, service industry workers, state workers, the homeless, builders, developers, educators and others as we plan for the next 20 years and beyond. It’s my responsibility and that of our people to hold city government accountable. It is tempting to retreat from difficult conversations and demand a demeanor denoting respect based on our position and authority. Staying present and listening hard to the brilliance in our community– the many facts, ideas, and opinions around each issue—is the right thing to do.
For more information about Ann MacFarlane’s advice for democratic and effective local government take a look at her Jurassic Parliament website (https://www.jurassicparliament.com/)
For more ideas about greater citizen involvement in City budget priorities check out the People’s Budget Review in St. Petersburg, Florida (PBR2017.org).
Clark Gilman is an Olympia City Councilmember and president of the board of The Bridge Music Project. He is also a long-time union organizer and resident of Olympia’s Westside. He is a candidate for re-election to the Council this fall. He can be reached at