It’s intimidating. The mayor invites comments from the public. Please step up to the podium.
You excuse yourself as you squeeze through a narrow row of folding chairs. Legs twist aside, people stand, to allow you passage. Finally you're at the lectern. Before you sits the mayor and the councilors. Behind you are many eyes and ears in the audience. The council chamber is small, almost claustrophobic, everyone crammed in. Throw in a couple of microphones and a video camera, plus a reporter from the newspaper sitting in the media section, and the focus is completely on you.
Some people have a natural talent for public speaking. I’m not one of them. I’m a blogger, not a speaker.
At Thursday evening’s Common Council meeting only one person spoke in support of the public library. Chad Chase, a student at Plattsburgh State University, said that the Plattsburgh Public library provides services not offered by PSU. The campus Feinberg Library was an academic library, its mission more specific than what PPL offered.
Chad also referred to the PSU students in the audience who were observing the session for one of their classes. He wanted to make those students aware of what PPL had to offer in addition to the Feinberg Library.
Chad didn’t have a prepared speech or notes. And while he did well, his tone did reveal a little nervousness. The same thing that I've experienced in similar situations.
After he spoke, no one else made a comment pertaining to PPL and its proposed budget for 2010.
Two evenings previous there had been another meeting, one held in the PPL auditorium with the Common Council in attendance. About twenty five people attended that meeting and I know more than one of them wanted to comment but public input wasn’t allowed. One person, Francesca Harnett, did sneak in a statement anyway. There was the feeling that more people would join in.
I had expected those same people would show up at the regular Common Council meeting. But only one person spoke about PPL. Why?
Part of the reason, I guessed, is the hour the council convenes. The regular session starts at 5:30 PM, a time when a lot of people are heading home from work, picking up kids from school, preparing dinner.
But I realized that another reason was the format of the meeting. On Tuesday evening in the PPL auditorium everyone was comfortable, sitting in chairs with plenty of room to stretch out and breath. A more informal setting.
I interviewed Chad Chase after he spoke before the Common Council, raising the issue of the two different settings. He did think that the format of the Common Council meeting could be intimidating. But he also pointed out that unlike the previous event at PPL, the mayor was attendance to hear public comments. Also, Chad added, there was probably a lack of awareness on the part of the public that they could comment during the CC meetings.
But, he noted, he preferred the more informal setting.
So what are some alternatives? A larger council chamber. A place where everyone in the audience isn’t crammed in, making it difficult to get to the podium. An awareness that some people are intimidated by formality, the focus on them, and maybe it would be better to allow them to speak from the floor with the option to stand up or remain seated. If comments have to be recorded, a wireless microphone would help.
After all, not every citizen is a polished, professional politician.