Guest Post Time (remember, this spot is usually available). This is a letter by Ed Spall, a long time resident of Manassas, small business owner and a good friend of mine to the City Council. He articulates here a case for changing citizens time. This letter addresses a question that I received with some routine during my tenure on Council: "why do City residents have to wait behind all of these out-of-towners in order to speak? We pay the bills here!" I admit that it's an issue I never really addressed but, in my defense, interest in that change was relatively episodic….:) Ed has asked me to post this here in order to generate a bit of discussion on that matter and I think that's a fair idea. So, without further ado:
Good morning Mr. Mayor and members of the council:
I have lived in Manassas for most of the last 35 years, and have spent many a Monday night watching the deliberations of City Council. The names and faces change as the years go by but you are the people who are currently in office. I went to my first meeting in 1983 as a school assignment for my government teacher at Manassas’s own Osbourn High School, Mrs. Rita Koman. I don't know if I ever really thanked her for that, but I should the next time I see her. I’m not sure I might have ever ended up in a council meeting if I had not been required to do so, but all those years ago I was bitten by a civic duty bug, and since then I’ve always liked keeping tabs on what is going on in Manassas by attending or watching the meetings. I’ve never missed an election day and the opportunity to support who I thought were the wisest candidates. Wisdom and forward thinking is what I have always valued most in my picks. It is my studied opinion that some serving on present council are now lacking in both. Unlike the state and national stages, which are now a ruinous battle of special interests and their puppets in both parties, in Manassas a citizen can still make a difference with their vote, and stand on our little stage every other Monday and have three minutes to address our governing body. The Mayor and Council need to hear us, and it is a valuable tool in providing feedback from the citizens.
Over the years I’ve seen folks bring up innumerable topics before Council and I appreciate the patience the members show in listening to all comers. We’re not always perfectly succinct! Though citizens’ time isn’t a dialog, from time to time the mayor or a council member will graciously take the time to address a citizen’s concerns, either steering them to the right department for answers, or correcting a misconception. And boy oh boy, have I seen more than a few misconceptions voiced by folks at citizens’ time. The fact that we’re not all perfectly informed or polished public speakers has made it all the more interesting.
Gentlemen and Mrs. Bass., I’ve come to my point. Through most of these last 30 odd years, one thing has held true: Citizens time was for citizens. Not citizens of the world, the USA, or Virginia, but citizens of the city of Manassas. After all, it’s held in the Manassas City Hall, it is presided over by Manassas City Council, and it is called Citizen’s Time. At my first meeting in 1983 and every subsequent meeting I watched until a few years ago, all the speakers identified themselves as citizens of Manassas. I didn't have any reason to doubt them, as they were always talking about snow removal, trash pick up, property taxes, budgets, and other things that easily identified them as legit citizens. Now things have changed significantly.
Actually, in recent years, things have changed tremendously. For this reason or that we see more and more non-citizens speaking at citizens’ time. The non-citizen speakers will often equal or outnumber actual citizens, who must wait to speak if they aren’t there to sign up early. I’ve kept my own tallies, and certainly the city has the data which would prove this as well. On many Monday nights, the speaking can go on for hours, and I’ve waited until as late as ten or eleven o'clock at night to get my three minutes in. Since these folks aren't holding a gun to anyone’s head, I must assume that you all like to hear from so many non-citizens. Why is this? Would anyone please shed some light on their reasoning for this, or explain why it must continue? At some point, I would think your patience would be exhausted.
Of course, there are people who do business in the city but don’t live here that want to speak. There are people who own property in the city, but don’t vote here, and want to speak. This is all well and good. We are a free and open society and Manassas is nothing if not also free and open. However, I’m starting to hear more and more people agreeing with me when they say, ‘what are two hundred non-citizens doing speaking at citizens time?’ What are outside groups doing threatening our city with lawsuits?
Have you had enough of all these folks lecturing us on how to run our city?
These non-citizens arrive and speak, trying to change the city codes. These non-citizens line up and complain about certain types of free enterprise in the city. These non-citizens have endorsed redefining ‘family’. These non-citizens lecture council on when life be-gins. These non-citizens provide graphic descriptions of abortion procedures. These non-citizens threaten the city with lawsuits. These non-citizens ramble on about issues that don’t pertain to council’s role. These non-citizens come to ask for what they want. What is wrong with this? I think it’s a waste of Manassas citizens’ energy, its a waste of city staff energy, and lastly, your own. I’m not concerned with the outsiders’ time being wasted.
I’m concerned about our precious municipal life being hijacked by the concerns of those who don’t live here. I would ask that you, at the least, give Manassas citizens some Citizens Time priority.
The citizens of Manassas have families, lives, and concerns of their own, as I’m sure you do as well. When two hundred outsiders show up to speak (sometimes trying to mask their non- citizenship), must we continue to accept that they are given priority over actual citizens based on when they arrived in the building? This waiting can greatly impact the time actual Manassas citizens have to be with their families, live their lives, and deal with their own concerns. This is simply an issue of fairness.
Mr. Mayor and members of Council, may I make a suggestion? If you persist in allowing non-citizens to speak, it seems an extremely simple matter to have two sign up lists. One would be for citizens and one would be for non-citizens. I believe you’d only have to worry about this on certain votes. You know, the votes that fill chambers with spectators, the votes that leave them lined up in the vestibule.
Come up with your own plan that you consider most fair but please, make a wise adjustment to the status quo. There’s already enough hot air coming from Washington and Richmond. I don’t want to have to breathe it in my City’s Council chambers too.