Decisions are made by those who show up – or so the saying goes.
That’s what a number of Harrisburg residents tried to do at Tuesday’s City Council meeting. Council was scheduled to discuss a resolution creating a community policing task force, which would, among other charges, research and recommend new community policing initiatives and trainings.
Discussions of policing typically draws large crowds to council meetings. The trend held steady this week, and about 15 community members came to speak during the public comment session.
But something strange happened during Tuesday’s meeting, simultaneous to something very dull.
I’ll start with the latter. Council spent more than three hours Tuesday evening doing the unglamorous but necessary work of legislating. They considered a contract to renew Harrisburg’s online bill payment software, questioned representatives from the National Civil War Museum on the deal they’re brokering with the mayor, and heard from a parks and rec employee about a small grant that department is seeking.
As I said: not particularly glamorous. Council members don’t call any votes during their work sessions. Instead, they debate and revise legislation, often with guest appearances from stakeholders. Discussions can quickly become esoteric and often feel like a college English seminar where only some of the students did the assigned reading.
As Tuesday’s meeting dragged on, residents who came to comment on the task force began to peter out. Some retreated to the city hall atrium to chat freely and wait for their turn to speak. But, as two hours ticked into three, some left all together.
The end result? Only three residents spoke during the public comment section. Three hours of legislative discussion concluded with less than 10 minutes of public input.
Some residents feel that, by moving public comment to the end of the agenda, council squandered the opportunity for a robust public discussion.
“I stayed as long as I could, but had to leave because I came straight from work and had not eaten,” said Carrie Fowler, who came out to comment on the task force resolution.
Chris Sienneck left for similar reasons.
“I didn’t see urgency within the council, so I didn’t feel that I needed to be there any longer, after being fatigued from my day anyway,” he said.
Is the perceived inefficiency of council meetings by design, or by necessity? As Sienneck pointed out, council’s discussions can provide necessary context for items on the agenda. He said that the way council facilitated Tuesday’s meeting was “actually really good” because it scheduled discussion before public comment.
Fowler, however, disagrees.
“I feel like it was purposely done to wear the residents out and have them leave before the issues they came to advocate for was brought to the floor,” she said.
It’s easy to see why residents who came to Tuesday’s meeting could feel slighted. Council President Wanda Williams has final authority on meeting agendas, and, in the past, has held public comment at the beginning of meetings. That’s probably what they should have done on Tuesday. It was obvious from the start that the public comment section would be longer than usual, and it’s not every week that council draws a large crowd.
But the unpalatable truth is that most machinations of democracy are slower, creakier and more earthly than we like to think. For instance, any discussion of a policing task force would require the presence of the police. But the law enforcement officials who spoke on Tuesday only appeared halfway through the meeting, as a shooting in the afternoon had sucked up most of the Police Bureau’s resources.
In setting Tuesday’s agenda, council also had to consider the schedules of all the invited stakeholders, including the bill-pay technicians and Civil War Museum reps. I couldn’t reach the City Clerk’s office for comment on this, but it’s possible that Tuesday’s agenda order just made the most logistical sense.
Decisions are shaped by those who show up. But sometimes, you have to wait a bit.
Author’s note: After publication, councilman Ben Allatt wrote in with this note about public comment sessions:
“Public comment is held during the beginning of legislative sessions so the public can comment on pending legislation up for vote. Public comment for work sessions is held at the end so people have the ability to offer comment on the legislation that was discussed during that meeting.