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Monday, June 27, 2011

Sebastappeal - July 2011

More Information and Education – Public Speaking

The Council’s discussion about leaf-blower use and the erroneous coverage in the regional newspaper made it clear to me that a lot of people do not under the civic process for passing new ordinances.  Having dedicated last month’s column to information and education about the courteous, respectful and responsible use of leaf blowers – my individual effort arising from the Council’s interest in public outreach – I am dedicating this column to outlining the steps in the legislative process, noting opportunities for public input, and to suggesting ways in which citizens can effectively express their points of view at public meetings.

Contrary to the content of the newspaper article, any potential ordinance cannot be raised as a first-time discussion item and passed into law at the same meeting.  There are several steps to the adoption process that provide opportunity for public comment.

First, the topic for a possible ordinance is agendized for discussion at a Council meeting.  The Sebastopol City Council starts a discussion item with an introduction and report from Staff, including questions to Staff.  Council Members may make preliminary remarks on the issue.  Then the Public is welcomed to participate; speakers are usually limited to three [3] minutes.  At the conclusion of the public remarks, the discussion returns to the Council for deliberation.  The deliberation may conclude with a direction to Staff or to a newly-formed Sub-Committee for further work.  This direction is done by consensus as determined by the Mayor or by a vote.  If possible, a return date for the item is indicated.

Further work is done by the Staff or the Sub-Committee, the result of with is reported to the Council as an agendized item.  Again, the Public has the opportunity to speak.  This second time around, the Council may comment on a draft or proposed ordinance.  It’s more likely that direction would be given for a [revised] draft to be returned at a third meeting.

Once the text for an ordinance is confirmed by the Council, it will again be returned on the agenda for the formalities of a “first reading” and a “second reading,” each of which are noticed agenda items, including formal public hearings.

By my count, the Public would likely have a minimum of four meetings at which to address the issues related to a proposed ordinance and to affect the content of that ordinance before it would be adopted.  There could be more opportunities if the content is difficult to write and/or the issues are significant to community members, and thus compel more public vetting.  I recall several meetings in Sebastopol where we have revised, redrafted, and “wordsmithed” material together – Council, Staff, and Public – even projecting the text on the wall while the group editing took place.

With these several opportunities for the Public to participate, I assume that each speaker talking at the podium about an agenda item wants to be effective.  That’s a challenging goal, given the common fear of public speaking and the intense personal feelings that often attach to an item of business.  Here are some suggestions about how to get your points across.

(1) Prepare ahead of time.  Read the Staff report.  Do your own research, such as a site visit or on the internet.  Call if you have questions.  Make copies of any hand-outs that you want to use at the meeting.

(2) Contact your Council Members ahead of time.  Let them know your point of view and your intention to speak at the upcoming meeting.

(3) When it’s your turn to speak at the meeting, give any hand-outs to the City Clerk to distribute before you start speaking.

(4) State your issue[s] clearly and succinctly.  Start with your conclusion. You may agree or disagree, in whole or in part.  Indicate how you’ve prepared.

(5) Address your remarks to the Council, rather than to other members of the Public.  Face the dais and make eye contact. 

(6) State your reasons for your position.  Logical reasons based in fact offer more explanation and detail than emotional ones. 

(7) Conclude with a specific request to the Council.  State what you want the Council to do.

(8) Be watchful of your verbal and non-verbal expressions, so that your message is easy to take in. 

(9) Once a decision is made or an action taken, give your Council Members your feedback. 

(10) Follow the item in which you are interested through its resolution.

I wish us success as we work together.

By Sarah Glade Gurney [ or voice message: 824.1871]