Public With Business Censored from TV Print
News/Features - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 23 January 2001 18:00
On Wednesday evening, January 17, 2001, during the year’s second formal council meeting, Mayor Phil Yerington announced the council’s plan to censor the “Public with Business to Present” (PWB) portion of all future council meetings (committee, committee of the whole, and regular council) by no longer televising them for public viewing. The news came as a severe blow to many citizens who depend on the broadcast to keep current on city issues.

By way of explanation (initially introduced at Tuesday afternoon’s Committee of the Whole meeting, January 16), Mayor Yerington told the audience that the decision to stop broadcasting PWB was to keep the community from “laughing” at the council. He emphasized that the council meetings were not meant to be “entertainment” and added, he was “tired of the image we are projecting” and of “the zoo we run.” So the mayor and council made a collective decision that the best way to “fix” the image of the city was to stop televising the PWB segment of all council meetings.

Alderman Ray Ambrose insisted that the council take a vote on the measure to let the public know exactly who supported the action, and more importantly who did not. Censoring the public was first discussed the previous day in the last thirty minutes of the council’s annual goal setting session, where the measure received support from seven of the nine aldermen and the mayor. Aldermen Ambrose and Hean voted against it. But when put before the public for a vote on Tuesday, Aldermen Caldwell and Nickolas appeared to have changed their minds and also voted against, to the obvious displeasure of the mayor and five remaining aldermen: Moritz, Sherwood, McGivern, Brown and Englemann.

Once censorship was actually imposed, the QC Times editorial board came out with their endorsement of the policy on Friday, January 19, stating, “Some citizens believe their city government narrowed the window of accessibility…We believe their fear is unfounded.” When Jeff Tecklenburg, new editor of the opinion page, was asked why the Board’s perception of council meetings and public conduct was that of a “zoo,” he claimed the editorial board had a policy of not commenting on statements they had consensus on. In other words, they are not inclined to defend their positions. When polled, many regular spectators at city hall cannot recall ever having seen any member of the editorial-page staff at a single council meeting—ever. Based upon issues as serious as censorship, this is questionable for a daily newspaper, especially while at the same time its claiming to be “an aggressive watchdog for openness.”

The primary rationale for censoring the public has been to return control of the meetings back to the council. Mayor Yerington observed, “We just invested $500,000 in DavenportOne to market our city…we’d better start abiding by some rules of professionalism.” When asked whether or not DavenportOne supported such a measure, President Dan Huber stated, “DavenportOne has not specifically been involved in any dialogue that led to the tactical conclusion to stop televising Public with Business. Removal of TV from Public with Business was not something we advocated. While we believe that the way in which city government is conducted can affect economic development, the issue of image is not in our program of work. We have had no strategy to work with the city council to reshape their meetings. The council establishes their own rules and structures their own meetings.”

Therefore, this recent action by the council assumes that either the public is currently controlling the meetings, or that its conduct is out of control during PWB. Arguably, no evidence exists for either assumption. PWB is the precise time during a council meeting for citizens to approach the council with city business that is not on the week’s agenda. Not all citizens are affected by a week’s agenda, and they therefore need the opportunity to bring up business beyond the agenda’s scope. During PWB each citizen is given five minutes to speak to any issue relative to city business. This is strictly adhered to because the city clerk has a timer to ensure the time limit is respected. If the speaker is not addressing city business, then it is up to the mayor to say so and end the dialogue. This is rarely the case because the majority of citizens are there because of city business of some kind. Conduct is normally civil, yet often critical, toward members of the council and city staff, but the information presented is almost always directly related to city business.

The several occasions when the meetings could be considered “out of control,” the misconduct was on the part of the aldermen or mayor. (In one instance, Mayor Yerington and Alderman Sherwood were taped yelling and threatening one another. Another example includes Alderman McGivern shouting at one citizen that she was a “fricking crazy woman!”) There are few, if any, examples of out-of-control behavior on the parts of any of the citizens who have presented during PWB. The broadcasts also show that more often than not, it is the aldermen who go beyond city business, opining about all kinds of things that are not specifically on the agenda.

Based on reviews of council meeting tapes, “out of control” appears to be defined as behavior that is critical and hostile in its tone while delivering information about city staff or council conduct that either reflects incompetency or is unbecoming to the parties involved. Critics of the measure to censor PWB claim it is to stop the information from being presented in the public arena at all—a measure to keep the public from knowing any or all the problems occurring in city hall.

According to consultant Lyle Sumek, Sumek & Associates, who facilitated the recent goal-setting session where control of council meetings was discussed, there is a specific protocol that should influence conduct during PWB. “Presenters should not personally address any of the staff or councilmen, or make accusations to them directly. The mayor is chair of the meeting and all comments should be directed to him or her.”

In other words, follow rules of order and make sure they are adhered to. As Sumek put it, “The council’s behavior sets the tone within the city for how it will interact with citizens. In the context of the council’s behavior is how free citizens will feel to provide input. The council sets the acceptable code of conduct and must enforce it. I am a big believer in setting a tone that involves the entire community. As input relates to city business, the public should always be encouraged to go through normal channels first. If they do not get results, then they need to come before the council. However, then it becomes a performance issue and is out of my realm.”

In an effort to follow the advice of the consultant, during Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole Alderman Hean made the suggestion that a set of conduct rules, which had already been drafted, be placed at the podium and before the mayor for enforcement. “Why don’t we try this approach first and see how it goes before we stop broadcasting altogether?” The majority of the council rejected Alderman Hean’s idea with no reason given.

As for the alleged tape being used against Davenport, mentioned to the council by Sumek during the goal-setting session, he would not divulge where or in what community he saw the tape, explaining that he saw it sitting on a shelf, but had no idea what the community’s purpose was for having the tape.

Critics of the measure to stop PWB from being televised along with the rest of the council proceedings say it remains a mystery how shutting the public out will improve the city’s image because it does not impact upon the council’s own behavior. Nothing within the measure addresses the council’s responsibility for their meetings being out of control. For this reason, many feel it is the council’s way of silencing a few citizens at the expense of the open public process.

Davenport’s new censorship policy is a mandate that allowed no public input even after a six-month effort by Aldermen Hean and Caldwell, along with citizens, to revise the current Rules of Order, which failed to pass in December. Several proposed revisions included allowing citizens to address the council on agenda items before they vote on an action as a means to better interact with the public. Bettendorf conducts its meetings using this common sense approach because it is more efficient to hear the public relative to an issue before it is acted upon rather than after. Davenport’s council has seen the wisdom in this policy and will allow the same, which will be televised as it occurs. The question then becomes why must this positive addition to council meeting protocol come at the expense of PWB, an equally important protocol to open government?

The other revision is to hold a monthly town meeting that will be televised, but is not mandatory for the council or city staff to attend. It is a choice, not a requirement for the council or city staff to be present at the town hall meetings. This is a critical distinction. Critics maintain that this forum cannot function as a replacement for PWB because it does not provide the same accessibility to procedure, nor is it within the formal channels of conducting city business. Town meetings provide a good place for public relations and a more informal setting to interact, but it is not a part of the official record of city business, therefore not a legitimate replacement for televising PWB.


blog comments powered by Disqus