City Council calls for pause to study Citizens Forum options

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Alan “OldStudent” Stancliff is a common sight at City Council comment periods. Photo by Steve Dunkelberger

Tacoma City Council passed a resolution on Tuesday that suspends the council’s practice of holding Citizens Forum during the second council meeting of each month. The council will work with the Center for Dialog and Resolution during the next year – at a cost of $25,000 – to develop a replacement way for people to voice their thoughts on city governance. The January forum has been cancelled, but the fate of monthly Citizens Forums as a whole will be up for future council members after they are sworn in after the New Year.

The forums have become increasingly unruly with a rising tide of protesters using profanity and personal attacks against individual councilmembers during speakers’ allotted three minutes of addressing the whole council on any topic. People will still be able to offer their thoughts on specific city topics on the council’s agenda as well as during public hearings.

Outgoing Councilmember Lauren Walker Lee first proposed the suspension of the Citizen’s Forums in November. She then proposed a substitute resolution at Tuesday’s council meeting. The substitute resolution, which ultimately passed unanimously, keeps the doors open for monthly Citizens Forums in some form, just likely outside of regular council meetings. Those details will be part of the roster of proposals the Center for Dialog and Resolution will provide under the contract.

“Everyone would agree that we are at a different stage of public comment,” she said during council discussions last week, noting that the pause would allow time to develop more productive ways for citizens to interact with council members as well as widen the scope of those comments. She added that the forum process didn’t allow for council members to respond to comments or questions, for example, People simply stated their concerns without responses from the dais.

“There needs to be a better way to do this,” she said. “This is something to set a new standard.”

Her original resolution would have had the city host five council-district forums on particular issues of that area of the city as well as have four citywide forums on issues facing Tacoma as a whole. Councilmember Marty Campbell supported the idea because the forums have become increasingly hostile and bordered on intimidation.

“Finding a dead animal thrown on your doorstep because someone disagrees with you is a little ghastly,” he said last week. “But it is part of what, I guess, we signed up for.”

Campbell said, however, that holding public office comes with a certain level of abuse from people who hold differing views. That comes with a political office. Slightly veiled threats to family members, however, cross the line.

“The names of our children shouldn’t be said as public intimidation on us,” Campbell said. “They get to be a little uncalled for.”

Many people spoke against the end of the monthly forums, saying they provided times for people to voice their concerns and frustrations with city officials as well as connect with other like-minded people. Some of them conceded that the forums can get unruly at times, but noted that the heated words are born from frustration that could get even hotter if the forums disappear entirely.

“I know democracy is messy,” said Alan Stancliff, known in council comment periods as Alan Oldstudent. “When we can’t come here, we can do other things. We can march. We can make you damned uncomfortable. We can go to your business and demonstrate there and make you damned uncomfortable there.”

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