If there’s one thing that a 29-year newspaper career taught me, it’s that listening — really listening — matters. Hearing is something most of us are fortunate enough to be born with; listening is something that you must learn. I'm working on it.
The ability to listen becomes paramount when the City Council holds a “public hearing.” With comments limited to two minutes, those precious words, shared with all of us, are profound. They’re unedited, unhomogenized, unredacted. They’re the raw data that shapes our city.
Recently there have been dismissive opinions voiced on the value of calling a public hearing. Media are quick to conclude that a hearing is a waste of time when the council (as in recent weeks) is not able to weigh in directly on mid-year budget cuts. I, for one, look forward to a hearing, even if legislation is not immediately pending. Citizen response to budget cuts, either voiced at public hearings or in email and phone calls, has shaped many a budgetary decision.
Several years ago, during lean times, the mayor proposed axing the Seattle Public Library’s Bookmobile. Citizens came to council budget meetings. They brought signs. They brought stories about shut-ins and seniors and day care kids. The Bookmobile was saved. Who saved it? You did. You spoke and the council listened.
Another time it was late night basketball that was at risk. A young woman, speaking so quickly and passionately that it was hard to hear the words, came to the mike to say how important it was to retain this recreational outlet. She said, “If we can’t play basketball at midnight, we’ll come to your house.” The audience laughed. But she made her point. The program was kept and, in fact, was expanded to more rec centers.
There are countless success stories like these. I remember one 11-year-old who changed council perspective on where electric scooters could be ridden. I recall another time when a group from Lynden Avenue brought a reasoned proposal for sidewalk improvements and won council approval. And then there were the oldsters who wanted to continue a senior citizens program. They lobbied successfully with a choral rendition.
One thing to remember: Councilmembers are the elected officials closest to the public. We’re more accessible than other branches of government. Most councilmembers have time for citizens. Call and make an appointment. Or for an only-in-Seattle experience, sign up and speak on agenda items at committee or council meetings. You don’t have to bring a group. You don’t need signs or matching T-shirts. All you need is an opinion and the time to wait your turn. This is democracy in action. And, if we’re successful at making it work, your opinions will indeed influence choices on how the city spends its money now and in the future. Never underestimate the power of a single comment to persuade.
Ready to practice? We’re having a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. today (Wednesday, April 22). I’ll be there, along with other councilmembers and members of the mayor’s staff, anxious to hear your reactions to budgetary decisions.
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