The new, responsive Mayor Wright, unveiled during the February 9, 2016, city council meeting — check the video of him making a show of taking notes during some citizen addresses to council — recently threw out this question to his social media following:
“Norfolk and Virginia Beach don’t air the ‘public comment’ portion of their council meeting, meaning the citizen’s concerns are not shown to the public. Should Portsmouth do the same? Does being on TV make matters better, or worse? If you have a concern for council to address, should that be televised? Are we our own worse enemy? Please be honest!
His post then linked to an article in The Virginian-Pilot — “In videos, some cities take the ‘public’ out of public meetings“.
That he is posing these question is some, albeit slight, consolation. Citizens with memories longer than the six months many public officials ascribe to us will have a sense of “déjà vu all over again”, though. For the sake of those who weren’t paying attention last time around, we had this “conversation” with Portsmouth elected officials in 2013. Just before the new year, a council reshaped by the November 2012 election decided that the cameras did not need to roll during the non-agenda speakers portion of the meeting. Preempting any opportunity for the public to weigh in on dispensing with the longstanding practice, a council consensus developed, out of public sight or hearing, to pull the plug. Signs went up on the council chamber doors before the first meeting in January, and it was the proverbial “done deal”. Except for one sticky detail: the citizens protested — in letters to the newspaper; in eMail messages and telephone calls to “the Honorables” (a courtesy term); in face-to-face encounters with council members; and in speeches from the podium in the council chamber.
During the “lights out” period for the taxpayer-funded city cameras, PortsmouthCityWatch.org stepped into the breach, recording and posting the moment-by-moment sights and sounds of the “censored” proceedings on YouTube. (They remain accessible in the PCW video archive and might prove interesting to revisit in light of this renewed threat to the public’s right to know.) Two months later, without acknowledging the public’s role in the process, council reversed itself. Council did so, however, with the assertion that if the citizenry did not comport itself as “the Honorables” desired, the “privilege” of having their remarks recorded could again be withheld.
Against this backdrop, then, let us return to the mayor’s initial questions. With regard to being our own worst enemies, the answer is “no”, unless Mayor Wright is included in the “we”. Before elaborating on that point, though, let us speak to the issue of being like everybody else. Having taken a leadership position in civic engagement, as we also used to do in affording speakers five minutes to address agenda and non-agenda items at council meetings, Portsmouth need not concern itself about what the “also rans” do. Our locality has held a city charter since 1859, more than three times as long as Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. Our commitment to airing public views — good, bad, or indifferent — is a sign of strength and health, consistent with the founding principles of our democratic republic. We should take pride in the fact that our neighbors need to catch up with us in at least this respect. (Norfolk, the first city chartered in this region, requires an entire article to address its unsuitability as a point of comparison. That will be a discussion at another time.)
Returning to who is the enemy of whom, we believe the strongest case to be made is that the mayor is his own worst enemy. On occasion after occasion, he has demonstrated his tone deafness to public concerns. That he would exploit an opportunity afforded by a “slow news day” article about who does and does not record citizen commentary at council meetings to seek support among his remaining loyalists for a repudiated council initiative shows how desperate he is to create distractions rather than address real issues. What he ought to be discussing are the plans for homicide prevention, the means of closing our recurring revenue gap, city support for school improvement initiatives, and ways to retain productive and experienced city employees, disheartened residents, and businesses. Of course, that would require a degree of leadership and managerial expertise that has been seriously lacking during his five years in office. We have little hope of those qualities miraculously manifesting themselves between now and the November election.
Furthermore, it has been the mayor’s ineptitude as presiding officer of city council that has allowed incivility to become commonplace among citizen participants and members of the elected body itself. Timely, impartial, and consistent enforcement of council’s “Rules of Order and Procedure” as well as Robert’s Rules of Order would have surely tamped down, if not wholly eliminated, indecorous behavior. Mayor Wright’s failure to educate himself about these aspects of his job description have been the root cause for the misguided and draconian attempts to maintain order through suppression of citizen participation. He has, indeed, been his own worst enemy and the enemy of democratic process.
We would hope that the citizenry will not squander the opportunity afforded by our November 8 election to give Mayor Wright a definitive answer to his questions. Replacing him and the incumbent members of council standing for reelection would demonstrate unequivocally that the people of Portsmouth care about our views being heard and heeded by our public officials. It would also serve as a “shot across the bow” to those facing reelection two years from now. Seize the moment!