Wednesday, April 11, 2007

On drawing blanks at City Hall

Testifying before the Portland City Council, as I did this morning, can be like being a stranger in a strange land.

You are given three minutes to speak your truth—such as it is.

I use the rapid, mildly-in-your-face approach.

Looking down on you from their slightly elevated platform, the mayor and four commissioners listen intently.

A red digital clock counts the seconds on a panel in front of you. 00:00—00:01….2:58—2:59—3:00—bleeeeeeeep.

You finish. The council members stare at you. You stare at them. You hope that you have inspired thought, conviction, an epiphany.

OK, a grunt? A flicker of life?


They stare back. Silence.

Your utterances are mere noises.

You leave the hearing table and meld back into the audience.

Next speaker?

On one occasion, I actually drew a question from the five. Vera Katz was mayor then, and I recall the question was hers. I can’t remember what she asked because it didn’t make any difference.

Today I drew blanks.

I was clearly out in la-la land. I was proposing something really, really wild—not selling the naming rights to our parks facilities to Nike or Intel or the Fortune 500.

I mean REALLY!

In fact, this time the commissioners actually seemed to look through me as I spoke.

“Bad policy…bad precedent…bad procedure,” I intoned into their vacuity.

I suggested that the proposed parks naming and sponsorship policies might one day lead to these very city council chambers'—RIGHT HERE! THIS ROOM!—being named after some corporate giant (Jockey Underwear? Exxon/Mobil?)—all in exchange for cash to replace the carpet or repair the roof.

No one blinked.

I returned to my place in the back of the room.

The resultant discussion was largely between the real, and realistic, park staff and the elected commissioners. All are paid. All are worth something to each other. They understand each other. They talk.

One commissioner wanted the parks director to explain how the process could involve the public more. He wondered how the city council would get involved in deciding whether a particular name designation was a good idea. It's not good to name some bucolic park glade after a rapacious CEO with a prison term in his future.

The commissioners and the staff were way beyond policy and into pesky details, like members of some exclusive club. Long ago, it became clear, they became committed to brokering the names of park facilities to corporations and to a recognition-hungry, donor elite—all for maintenance cash.

Somewhere in the last 10 years, while I wasn’t watching, a civic norm—a given—was established. Just the way it’s now given that states can raise cash by promoting gambling—and gambling addiction. Just as it is given that the Portland Trolleys are programmed to audibly announce to riders that the next public stop on the public street is “sponsored by” a travel agent, a bookstore, condominium complex or museum.

Sponsored “trolley stops”? State-sponsored gambling? Park glades named for moguls?

For me, the strange became a little stranger today.

Beam me up, Scotty.

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Anonymous Amanda Fritz said...

The current Council doesn't have anyone whose primary objective is fostering public participation. Council meetings have become extremely dysfunctional. In the Good Ol' Days, there would be a staff presentation so the Council members who hadn't done their homework had a quick summary to bring them up to speed, then public testimony, then discussion. Now, the Council almost always has a long discussion before taking public testimony, and on more than one occasion the Mayor has forgotten to ask for public input at all. If the Council members would wait before launching into discussion, some of their questions would be answered (or posed) in public testimony, allowing them to ask citizen experts, not staff, what the proposal says/doesn't say/should say. But the way they do it now, public testimony is a formality, largely irrelevant, as you state.

Even under the old way of doing things, though, if you wait until your three minutes before the mike to make your points, your chances of success were slim. Not many of us can persuade even one person to change their mind in three minutes, let along five. See the link to Testimony Tips on the sidebar of my blog for ideas on increasing the chances of making a difference.

11:44 AM  

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