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Citizen’s speak


I see in last week’s Economist that the Solon City Council is considering changing policy for the Citizen’s Speak portion of their regular meetings. Apparently, the council wants to get away from the status quo, which allows for citizens to speak up whenever on whatever topic is discussed.
Having served on the body for two terms, I can appreciate why they might want to do this. Some people just like to hear themselves talk, and the less they have to say the longer it takes for them to get it done. Usually, we get rid of these pain in the necks by sending them to Washington, D.C. So a limit on the time allowed for speech makes sense. If people feel they have a right to drone on and on, they should take out papers and run for their own seat at the table, preferably in a different venue.
But the council is also considering limiting when the public can speak during a portion of each meeting designated as Citizen Speak. At first blush this also makes sense. I don’t how many times I’ve heard a council locked in intense debate about some important issue like whether a dog license should be good for two or three years when a dozing citizen in attendance wakes up and wants to talk about their water bill.
It happens more than you’d think.
For example, I recall a meeting in Ely, which I was covering as a reporter. Between serving as an elected official and owning small newspapers, I’ve sat in more than my fair share of meetings. Because of the constant exposure to hot air, some of it produced by myself, I developed an allergy to meetings. Seriously, I break out in hives whenever I hear the question, “Is there a motion to approve the agenda?”
Anyway, for those not from these parts, Ely is the sleepy little town about 10 miles away from Solon. Its population at the time was less than a thousand. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame is that it was the original home to Bar None Margarita Mix, which I had to stop consuming because I kept losing my prescription glasses. But that’s another story.
In the middle of the meeting in question, attention turned to plans for resurfacing and upgrading Dows Street, the town’s main thoroughfare.
Maps and blueprints were strewn everywhere, and butts were all I could see as everyone at the table stood up and bent over to get a good look. A sharply dressed engineer from a prestigious firm in Cedar Rapids was directing, explaining and droning on and on about traffic counts, sidewalk widths, and storm water drainage. Unexpectedly, an elderly gentleman, who had been quietly dozing by my side, spoke up.
If you pay attention, there’s usually at least one person like the one at this meeting at every official gathering. Perhaps they’re waiting for a game of euchre to break out?
Anyway, in the middle of the scrum, this guy interrupts politely yet firmly enough to get everyone’s attention. Excuse me, he said, but I’ve been living on Dows for the past 40 years, and that piece of road drains to the east and not to the west as your drawings show.
The well-paid and experienced engineer poo-pooed the input, pointing out that an expensive and thorough study of slopes and elevation was performed, double-checked and certified. He wasn’t impolite, but close to it.
The citizen persisted, however, and eventually it was decided to make an impromptu on-site visit that very evening. So the mayor, councilpersons, clerk, city attorney, city superintendent, random guy in the audience and me marched the couple of blocks up to the spot in question. A bucket of water was produced and... can you guess the rest of the story?
Yep, the guy was right, and a very expensive mistake avoided.
So to the Solon City Council I say, I feel your pain but sometimes you just have to listen.