Jefferson Banner - Opinion
John Foust - St. Joseph's Bonds


Public comment is important

Below is a letter to the editor that I sent to the Daily Jefferson County Union in June 2010.

I don't know if it was ever printed. I don't think it was.

- John

Three cheers for Council President Loren Gray’s June 1 suggestion to include public participation on the agenda of future Fort Atkinson council meetings! Three cheers for councilpersons Dick Schultz’s and Bill Camplin’s motions! Finally, three big cheers for your masthead editorial on June 8 “Let the public speak”.

The concept of a public forum is deeply rooted in our democracy for many reasons. It is important for citizens to hear each other. Until they hear someone else speak, some might believe they are alone in their opinion. It is also important to air opinions in public, face-to-face with government. The opportunity to speak will increase attendance at meetings. As your editorial points out, sometimes the public comment is the most interesting part of the meeting.

Yes, an elected official might receive an opinion by letter, email, phone or grocery-store chat, but these take place in private. We would never know if they received ten opinions against an issue, then voted for it claiming that public opinion supported it.

Although Wisconsin law does not require a public comment period, the other governmental bodies in our area encourage it. Why not Fort? It’s almost as if there’s been a purposeful effort to discourage this form of public participation. Without public comment at meetings, Fort’s only public forum is the Daily Union’s letters-to-the-editor section.

Although the minutes show he supported public participation in general, I disagree with Councilperson John Mielke’s suggestions that the public would need to tell him in advance what they’d like to speak about, in order for him to better prepare a response, and that citizens should be restricted in the topics they raise. I can’t imagine why any elected official would want to place obstacles in the path of citizen feedback. No prior reservation should be needed. No response is required by the Council.

In fact, that’s how most government bodies handle it. They listen, but they do not engage in give-and-take discussion during the public comment period. In the same way that our Open Meetings law says that the Council should not discuss any topic without prior notice on an agenda, they shouldn’t discuss any new topic introduced by the public. If the speaker’s topic is on the agenda, it will be discussed at the appropriate moment. If a new topic is worth discussing, it can be added to a future agenda.

The statutes are silent regarding the procedures to follow for public comment, so each body is free to adopt its own rules. Your editorial suggests limiting speakers to two minutes. That’s rather short. If the Council is willing to listen, why limit it to fifteen minutes? If they ever have a roomful of passionate citizens, then “let the public speak.” Leave it open-ended. No trial period should be necessary. Look at all the other bodies that have listened to the public for years.

There should be no reason to disallow citizens from other cities. Fort interacts with other communities on annexation, taxation, economic development, and recreation. Why wouldn’t you want to hear other relevant opinions?

I visited Fort Atkinson’s web site. Your editorial suggests that a citizen could email a Council member, but no email addresses are provided there. Why not?

I examined the Fort Atkinson School Board web site. They seem to be inconsistent, as not all agendas and not all minutes are posted. The minutes show that they do seem to allow public comment at the start of the meetings, but public comment is not listed on the agenda. For obvious reasons, this should be added so the public can know they can speak. In general, their agendas do not seem to follow the recommended format used by other government agencies in our area.

If your “Let the public speak” position is consistent, though, you should agree with me that Fort Atkinson needs to open up its process of economic development. The Fort Atkinson Industrial Development Corporation has operated behind closed doors for many years. Your reporters and the public have been barred from their meetings. The public cannot know how they have steered economic development decisions for the City, and the public has no opportunity to contribute to their process.

At the County level with the Economic Development Consortium and at the City of Jefferson’s Redevelopment Authority, a formerly closed economic development process has been opened to the public in the last decade with no ill effect on the results. The greatest benefit has been the coverage of these meetings by your newspaper, as your reporters can now attend their meetings and share the news with the public.

At the same meeting, the council set the date for a meeting of Fort Atkinson’s Cable Television Committee. It is a shame that this committee hadn’t met since January 2006. It should meet regularly.

Fort has two community television channels on Charter Cable. These channels are an important public forum, too. The city channel is woefully under-used as compared to other communities in our area. The school’s channel is active, but recent budget cuts brought the loss of the high school library assistant who helped with the equipment for both channels.

Fort Atkinson is collecting more than $110,000 a year from the five-percent franchise fee that appears on everyone's cable bills.  None of this money is being used for community television, but it should be.  In Whitewater, the bulk of their franchise fee revenue is given to their station.  That's why they have a great station and tremendous community appreciation for what they do. Jefferson’s station records many community events with a budget a tenth of that.

The Cable Committee finally met on June 21. Chairman John Mielke did a great job of leading the meeting. Both Mielke and John Wilmet did their homework on cable issues. The citizen members of the committee were enthusiastic about reviving this resource. The committee benefitted by inviting comment from audience members.

I encourage anyone interested in community media to attend the next meeting. Share your opinion with committee members Anders Yocum, Michael Clish, Tom Kohls, Karen Reinhardt, or chairman John Mielke.

Like public comment at meetings, it would be a great benefit to having Fort’s government meetings and community events on television.


John J. Foust