My Turn: City leaders shouldn’t muzzle citizens
By Tamara Sheffield
When our current City Council took office in December 2015, I felt they made some changes in March I had advocated for in regard to public comment. I applauded the addition of public comment to every City Council meeting. After all, that is only two times per month that citizens could have a public forum. The meeting time was moved from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., which increased public access to City Council and allowed more citizens to attend. I applauded that as well. Then the City Council decided to be even more citizen friendly by giving an estimated time to switch to public comment at 6 p.m.
Since November of 2016, citizens across the nation have been civically inspired to share their thoughts on a variety of topics regardless of political party. This has never rang so true and close to home than on Dec. 4, 2016, the night of the tragic shooting and murder of 7-year-old A’yanna Allen. Citizens found their voices. They came to City Council meetings to express concern and hold the City of Salisbury accountable for unspeakable crime and violence. I am sure this has not been comfortable for the mayor and council members. And it should not be comfortable. Citizens should be allowed to speak. Citizens should not feel intimidated or muzzled. Citizens are equally if not more important than what is deemed city business.
I myself have participated in civil disobedience as an effort to raise awareness and bring about change for those who are treated unfairly and unequally. Some people do not use their voices and rely on those of us who are willing and brave enough to speak out. However, I do believe that there is a need for rules and procedure. What I don’t believe in is a resolution that limits citizens. YES, there are many other outlets that the City Council was sure and quick to identify as a way of justifying the proposed citizen muzzle. Coffee with a Cop two times per month. Meeting with the city manager one hour per month. SNAG meeting one time per month. Neighborhood Leadership Alliance Meeting two times a year. However, nothing replaces a citizen’s input at a recorded and broadcasted City Council meeting.
Citizens and activists, I implore you to be part of the process. Come to the meetings with ideas and solutions. Come to the meetings and learn other things that impact you even when you don’t plan to speak. Come to the meetings and stay for the meetings. Stating your comments and leaving directly afterwards sometimes prevents you from getting feedback that might occur in the city manager’s or mayor’s comments.
The proposed changes to event permitting and public comment, which appear to be benign, reek of limiting citizens and further cloak the free speech process. In December of 2016, each of the City Council members implied they wanted to embrace the transparency of city actions. Instead of overlaying another municipality’s ideas for event permitting and public comment, do what fits Salisbury. Be an original. Here is your chance to keep that commitment.
City Council, I implore you. Do not limit the comments to a one-hour block of time, just because the state mandate is 30 minutes — do what fits our community. Do not require a sign-up prior to the meeting. Many times your regular business topics inspire citizens to speak. Also many people cannot get there before 5 p.m. to make that happen. If needed for proper follow-up, have citizens sign in, not sign up. Do not require a topic since several topics might be addressed in three minutes unless you are willing to allow for three minutes per topic instead of per person. Do not prevent multiple citizens from speaking on the same topic, as each person provides their original perspective which can vary from the collective. City Council, you can keep the comments at 6 p.m., move it to the beginning or move it to the end — just don’t limit citizen comments.
The AKC (American Kennel Club) organization states to not use a muzzle for barking, chewing or other ongoing behavioral problems. A muzzle is not meant for extended time periods and a muzzle is not a solution, according to AKC. They are very clear in stating never use a muzzle for punishment; it will not fix the underlying problem.
Mayor Alexander and City Council members, do not muzzle your citizens. Allow us to speak. Allow us to share frustration. Allow us to show fear. Allow us to share solutions. A muzzled community may be more dangerous once released.
Tamara Sheffield lives in Salisbury.