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Some voices matter more than others

| May 25, 2022 1:00 AM

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” — Habit 5 from “7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey

Sit in on a public meeting sometime and prepare to be amazed.

You think kids say the darnedest things? Listen to their parents and grandparents lecturing city council or school board members, telling them how they’re hastening the chariots of hell by accepting federal funding and not condemning certain art.

Who are these public comment proselytizers? Some see them simply as engaged and active citizens ensuring that elected officials hear what they have to say. Others see them as serial smack-talkers.

They're all exercising their First Amendment rights — but there’s an asterisk. First Amendment rights do not guarantee that anybody can say anything anytime they want. You know, like during a city council, school board, county commission or other legally convened public meeting.

Good elected leaders will always make time for public comment, but they also have the right to set rules for speakers. A public comment period without limits on how long speakers can yammer is a fairly certain way to ensure no actual business will get done.

Coeur d’Alene City Council is measuring the pros and cons of allowing just about anybody to say just about anything during the public comment period, so long as the time limit is respected and the vocal cords aren’t exercised too vehemently.

A fair question is this, though: How much should a city council care about the opinions of someone who isn’t a resident?

Coeur d’Alene is contemplating doing away with prayers to open council meetings, and pressure is coming from all quarters — including people from Post Falls, Hayden and elsewhere beyond Coeur d’Alene city limits. How much should what outsiders say matter in setting policy for Coeur d’Alene?

For those who pay attention to such things, it’s interesting to see several of the same people, with basically the same scripts lifted from a certain ideological perspective, stating their case at any number of public meetings around the county. Sometimes it smells like a half-baked agenda is overcooking.

On a broader scale, it makes sense that an elected body would be most interested in hearing what its actual constituents think, so limiting comments to residents within that zone would be both fair and practical.

However, an elected body that is open to hearing from anyone on any topic gets extra credit in the communication department. That body is going above and beyond the reasonable expectations of open government. If they have the time and the patience to hear what non-constituents think, then more power to them.

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