Citizens Forum, a monthly opportunity for the public to speak during Tacoma City Council meetings, has been under review for the past few months. For years, the council has allotted time once a month for the public to speak about items not on that evening’s agenda. In general, citizens are to discuss topics over which the council could act upon. An occasional speaker will speak about issues outside the council’s jurisdiction, such as United States foreign policy. Such detours are generally tolerated, but the increasingly unruliness of Citizens Forums in 2017 caused the council to take action. Profanity and personal attacks against council members led to the council cancelling the forum for January. For the past four months they have been held at a later point in the meeting, after the unfinished business on the agenda.
The council awarded a contract to Center for Dialog and Resolution, in the amount of $25,000, to study the forums and offer recommendations on how to make them more effective. The local organization solicited public input by several methods. These included informal phone and in-person interviews, online surveys and e-mail correspondence. Executive Director Maralise Hood Quan has spoken to the council at the start of the last several forums. A graphic facilitator, Tim Corey, was on hand at three of the forums and three community focus groups to capture the comments on large sheets of paper.
An observation form was created and provided to members of the public. They were asked to observe and provide their opinions on the rules of participation compared to what they saw in the room. At each forum and focus group, a verbal summary of what was expressed was provided to the audience.
According to a report Hood Quan presented the city in May, residents who care about their city generally have the following in common: they understand not all petitions will receive a response; they appreciate follow-up from council and staff; they need clear information about how local government functions; they want to know how public comment is utilized by the council when making decisions; they believe Citizens Forum is important for participatory democracy; and they expect differing views and appreciate hearing from other members of the public.
The findings of the project will be presented to the council at the end of June. Center for Dialog and Resolution staff will meet with council members to discuss conflict dynamics and explore the impact on implementing recommendations on city resources with the city manager and her staff. Recommendations and implementation will be examined during a future Committee of the Whole meeting.
Former Councilmember Lauren Walker Lee offered up a resolution late last year that would have moved Citizens Forum out of city hall. Her plan called for the city to host five council-district forums on issues affecting that part of Tacoma, as well as four citywide forums on issues facing the city as a whole.
A primary topic discussed during recent Citizens Forums has been plans by Puget Sound Energy to build a liquified natural gas facility on the Tideflats. John Carlton is a member of Redefine Tacoma, a group opposing the facility. He is opposed to moving the forums to other locations, in part because the council chambers is equipped with television cameras and the meetings are televised on TV Tacoma. “That is a really important part of getting our voice out,” he remarked.
He noted members of Redefine Tacoma have been able to connect with others who share their concerns, such as representatives of the Puyallup Tribe, while at the council chambers.
Carlton said he was treated differently when testifying before Seattle City Council on the same topic. No bell went off when a speaker hit their allotted time limit. He was able to go about two minutes past his limit as the council allowed him to continue. Seattle is more dialogue oriented, he added. “They actually addressed the issue.”
At the last Citizens Forum, Mayor Victoria Woodards had to leave the meeting early so Deputy Mayor Anders Ibsen had the gavel. Carlton said Ibsen addressed some issues brought up, such as pedestrian safety and displaced renters, but did not address liquid natural gas, the topic most speakers commented on. Carlton said he spoke to Ibsen after the meeting and Ibsen said he could not comment on that topic for legal reasons. “No wonder we are frustrated,” Carlton said.
Woodards briefly addressed the topic during the May 22 council meeting. She said the council wants residents to feel that they are being heard and respected. “We think Citizens Forum is important.”