This riddle was posed by an elderly gentleman while I was attending my first city commission meeting in Hallandale Beach, Florida. As he stood at the podium with a microphone during his allotted 3 minutes addressing the mayor and commissioners, I have to admit that he got my attention. The topic under discussion was one of replacement street signs and a debated corresponding expenditure of $45,000. I whole-heartedly enjoyed the use of humor by this citizen to express a point of view.
Prior to the meeting I had looked up the agenda and found it to be Chinese. While attending the meeting, I also tried to follow along on the agenda and again found it to be completely useless. I relate the experience to that of being dropped into a meeting at a corporation without having the benefit of historical events. What became abundantly clear to me during the meeting though, was that the juiciest learning moments aren’t even listed on the agenda anyways. Apparently the most controversial topics are brought up by the public during open comments.
My observation of the communication during the actual meeting was that the procedures implemented were clumsy and non-facilitating in nature. It has been a while since I have brushed up on parliamentary procedures, but I’m quite confident that order during the meeting can be maintained without such strange gyrations and blatant limitations on communication. I found the nature of the communication to be very intimidating.
Another unusual observation about the public participation was that each speaker had to announce their name and address. Prior to the commencement of the meeting, everyone who intended to speak had to put their name and address on a list with the clerk, which I understood and agreed with for the official record. However, I was not expecting for the address to be announced when speaking as well. I’m not sure exactly why I wasn’t expecting this, I just wasn’t. I suppose those with strong beliefs about personal privacy need not speak during the meeting.
The most important learning from this meeting was by far that participation has an impact. It was abundantly clear that few from the community participate in our local politics. The elected officials appeared to know all speakers from the public by name so the few residents who attend the city meetings, must do so repeatedly. In fact, my presence as a newbie was immediately noted by everyone. As a much appreciated gesture of hospitality, each of the commissioners and mayor approached me separately before or after the meeting to introduce themselves. This action certainly made me feel very welcome indeed. The power of participation is a reality and cannot be stated enough. I thought about the conversations I have had with business contacts, colleagues and friends in the community about local affairs and wondered what an impact those conversations could have had on the community had each of us brought them to a city commission meeting. I definitely will not voluntarily dismiss my right as a citizen to participate in the political system again.
Lasting about 10 hours, the city commission meeting seems to be designed as a test of endurance and coherency under extreme conditions for all participants – and not all cross the finish line. My survival gear next time will definitely include a computer to combat long stretches of pure boredom, layers of clothing to combat the extremely frigid temperature, and ready-to-eat meals for endurance. Thankfully my city hall meetings are recorded and posted online to watch/listen to when convenient. I have already taken advantage of this technology and find that I can catch up while getting ready in the mornings. Now that I have gotten my feet wet, I’m really looking forward to taking action – and hurdling those political speed humps along the way!