OPINION: In deciding public comments issue, Council should beware of revisionist history

After any big election — and especially after one in which a public bond measure failed as spectacularly as the Camas community-aquatics center did when 90 percent of voters shot it down in the November 2019 election — it’s natural for people to play the “I told you so” game and want to rewrite history a little bit.

We’ve seen this playing out in Camas recently, as folks try to use the community center’s defeat as a shining example of how disconnected city officials really are from the needs of their constituents.

But the truth is never that simple. Yes, city leaders may have rushed to bring the community-aquatics center bond to the voters and should have done more “market research” before placing the bond on the ballot. And, yes, city officials probably should have stuck with a plan to build a joint community center that had buy-in from Washougal, the port and the school districts. In reality, though, the bond’s failure likely had more to do with the high-ticket cost than with councilmembers’ failure to connect with citizens.

This issue came up during a Feb. 3 city council workshop, when a citizen who led the charge against the community-aquatics center used the bond’s failure as a reason why councilors should revamp their public comments period and allow for two-way conversations with citizens during council workshops and meetings.

The results of the November election, he argued, “clearly demonstrate the ineffectiveness” of the council’s current public-comments rules, which allow citizens three minutes to speak their minds at the beginning and end of workshops and regular meetings.

Anyone who has attended or watched the Camas City Council meetings over the past few years knows it is customary for the mayor or mayor pro tem to thank speakers or direct them to a city staff member for follow-up. Councilmembers, as is the case in most cities, do not engage in two-way conversations during the public comments periods.

At the Feb. 3 meeting, the speaker claimed the council’s unwillingness to answer citizens during the public comments period was one of the reasons the bond failed. Having a two-way conversation during public comments, he said, “would have completely changed the speed and transparency (of the bond process) and acted as a natural brake on a process that felt rushed.”

For people who weren’t present during the Council’s early discussions about the bond, this line of reasoning might seem logical. If councilmembers had only listened to citizens, they never would have put that bond on the ballot. Sounds good, right? But, again, the truth is never that simple.

In reality, Camas councilmembers discussed the community-aquatics center at several workshops before voting in July 2019 to place the issue on the November ballot. Post-Record reporters covered those workshops and wrote about the steps leading up to the July vote, but witnessed no public outcry at Council workshops or meetings — no citizens asking their elected officials to hold off on the bond.

In fact, just the opposite was true at the Council’s June 3 workshop and regular meeting, when the community-aquatics center was on the agenda. The speakers who claimed their three minutes during the June 3 meeting included eight citizens who spoke in favor of the community-aquatics center. No one spoke against the community center.

Camas city officials should continue to reflect on the things they could have done better before the November 2019 general election, because there was obviously a disconnect with how voters would respond to a $78 million ask, but we hope they will not let this new revisionist history cloud their judgment when it comes to public comments.

Open communication with citizens should be the goal of every elected official, but council meetings are not the place for the type of back-and-forth conversations being advocated by a handful of citizens.

When it comes to setting rules for public comments during workshops and meetings, we suggest Camas councilmembers heed the advice of the nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC), an organization that provides policy guidance to local governments to help officials better serve their citizens:

“Remember the purpose of the council meeting is to conduct the city’s business, it is not a public forum,” the MRSC states in a guide to public comments at council meetings. “Make sure elected members address colleagues and not the audience. Directly addressing the audience can result in loss of control of the meeting. (Councilors) are expected to be polite to citizens appearing before them, but there is no requirement they subject themselves to intimidation by rude speakers.”