Muzzled: Why won’t Overland Park and KC city councils let their residents speak?

Citizen calls on Independence councilman to resign

Beverly Harvey, a citizen of Independence, called on city councilman Tom Van Camp to resign Monday in the wake of a media report suggesting he used public money for personal travel.
Up Next
Beverly Harvey, a citizen of Independence, called on city councilman Tom Van Camp to resign Monday in the wake of a media report suggesting he used public money for personal travel.

This nation’s founders felt the right to “petition the government for a redress of grievances” was so vital that they put it in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Today, with internet and smartphone in hand, Americans cling to the right to petition nearly everyone on almost everything.

Local city councils should be near the top of those being petitioned. They ought to be the most accountable, accessible and approachable in the land.

In that spirit, the city councils of Overland Park and Kansas City should join other area municipalities in allowing public comments at their meetings.

Overland Park Councilman Faris Farassati is promoting the practice, and Councilman Dave White says the Finance, Administration and Economic Development Committee he chairs will take up that idea among other council protocols at its Wednesday meeting. White will be going the extra mile in doing so, since such council procedures generally are reviewed only every other year.

The newly elected Kansas City Council and mayor should go that extra mile too, and develop guidelines for allowing constituents to offer time-limited but open-topic comments at full meetings of the council.

Being heard by our leaders is one of the most traditional and cherished acts of American citizenship. And again, no amalgam of Americans is more accustomed to being heard than the current one.

“We would never get out of a meeting with public comments,” one Kansas City Council member fretted to The Star. That’s a valid concern. If it turns out that way, the comment period can be discontinued. But hearing feedback from the public doesn’t necessarily have to be problematic, as other governing bodies have demonstrated, as long as comment periods are tightly structured and closely managed by the chair.

Civility and decorum must be demanded. Topics should be restricted to those of local public interest, rather than cosmic rants of little relevance. To cut down on repetition, large groups should be represented by a spokesperson or two, and speakers should be limited to a set number of appearances before the body. Comment periods should have definite ending times, as must each speaker.

Coming so late to the public comment game, the two councils could certainly learn from other cities’ and counties’ experiences, not to mention a plethora of guidance on the web and in the book “Robert’s Rules of Order.”

Overland Park Councilman Paul Lyons, also on White’s committee, said he’s open to the idea of instituting public comment periods but worries about the logistics. He also wants to make sure public speeches don’t serve as a substitute for one-on-one time with a constituent’s council member. Further, Lyons said he hopes studying the idea of public comments would be deliberate, not rushed. Absolutely. This needs to be done right in order to work.

The Overland Park City Council could also provide a road map for Kansas City to follow.

If a public comment period can be established while maintaining order and providing constructive dialogue, it could provide an invaluable connection point between council and constituent.

We’ve got an all-out crisis in both civic knowledge and engagement in this country, with far too many citizens sitting out elections and tuning out politics. Only a quarter of Americans in a 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center could name all three branches of the federal government; a third couldn’t name any of them. A Newsweek quiz in 2011 found that 70% didn’t know the Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

We’ve absolutely got to engage in our government again, especially in our own communities.

Having our local leaders listen to us on a regular basis is one small step in that direction.