Members of the Republican-led majority in the Niagara County Legislature changed the rules for public speaking 10 years ago for no other reason than to shut up constituents who dared challenge their authority or decision-making in public.
Try as they might to dream up some other reason for relegating speakers on the “good of the county” to the end of their sessions where their comments are not even reflected in the official minutes, there’s no other good answer for why such a change had to be made a decade ago now.
It hurts, we know, to have your critics question your abilities, your wisdom, your logic and, in some cases, your fortitude.
Still, when you are an elected official — in the county or at any level — public criticism comes with the territory.
Sure, constituents can be tough critics but, considering their tax money pays the bills, the should be well within their right to have their say from time to time.
The Republicans and their adherents simply didn’t want to hear it, not when what was being said was actually being written into the public record and not when the meetings were being broadcast locally on LCTV.
Better to simply change the rules — in the face of fierce opposition of a group of constituents who showed up to protest in advance of the vote — and be done with it.
The move accomplished what it was intended to accomplish in that it forced anyone who wanted to say something about the county that wasn’t already on the legislature agenda to wait - often for hours - until the end of the meeting, as in when the meeting was actually over. As a result, fewer and fewer interested citizens chose to tough it out and instead simply stayed away and tuned out of county government all together.
And, honestly, under the circumstances, who could blame them?
County lawmakers now have a chance to restore the public speaking portion of legislature meetings to the beginning of each session where more people may be willing and able to participate.
The Republican leaders are already putting forth amendments because they are no doubt concerned about the potential for fed-up and disillusioned county taxpayers to show up and voice their real opinions and tell lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle their real opinions on the job they think they are doing, or not doing.
Again, that’s the risk you run when you run for public office.
One of the proposed amendments would at least allow for public speakers on non-agenda items to have their comments reflected in the official meeting minutes.
While portrayed as some benevolent gesture, this should just be a given.
Failing to assure speakers that what they say will be reflected in the public record is like telling them, once again, to stay home and keep their opinions to themselves. If what is said is not written into the record, honestly, what’s the point?
It’s time for the full county legislature to follow the lead of the Democrats in the minority and give the people back the power to say what they want to say about their county government at a reasonable hour of the night.
While it often feels as though government is run by an elite few, those who managed to secure enough petition signatures to get on a ballot or those who knew the right somebodies to get placed on a political party ballot line, government — at all levels — should be operated in deference to the people who actually run it and that’s the voters and the taxpayers.
This one’s actually very simple: Let the people have their say at the beginning of the meetings, just as they did 10 years ago before the elected officials who didn’t like what they had to say changed the rules to silence them.