That may be an obvious statement, especially when it comes to the actions of elected officials. But it is especially true in our current political climate.
The issue was raised again last week, during the public comment portion of the Killeen City Council meeting.
A Killeen resident chided the council for what he perceived to be council members’ inattention while residents were addressing them with their concerns.
The frustrated speaker took issue with the fact that council members on the dais spent most of their time looking down as the residents spoke, and it was his contention that many of them were on their phones during the residents’ presentations.
The speaker who criticized the council ended up being removed from the meeting after a testy exchange with Mayor Jose Segarra — an incident that had many in the community buzzing. It also served to bring the subject of the council’s attentiveness to the forefront.
The Herald heard similar concerns from other residents, with some noting that a few council members seemed to be carrying on conversations while the residents spoke.
Obviously, there are two sides to every story, and the Herald asked council members and the mayor about the common perception that they lacked attentiveness when residents spoke.
All seven council members and the mayor responded, and most said they paid attention while residents were given their three minutes to address the council.
Mayor Pro Tem Debbie Nash-King said she believed members were looking down because they were taking notes. She said that was especially the case with City Manager Kent Cagle, who was singled out by the angry speaker at Tuesday’s meeting.
However, Councilwoman Mellisa Brown acknowledged that inattention has been a problem — one that was addressed by the council during its recent discussion on updating its governing standards.
Brown further said that the issue of ongoing conversations while residents speak is real, and the evidence can be seen and heard when watching video of the council meetings.
If it is that obvious, this is definitely a problem that should be taken seriously.
Residents who come before the council with a concern or grievance deserve to be heard. That is the whole intent of the public comment portion, which is mandated by state open meetings law. A resident who expresses legitimate concerns to the council — only to be met with perceived indifference or disinterest — has a right to feel disrespected.
For many, speaking before an elected body is an intimidating experience. And trying to make a convincing argument in the three minutes allotted can be a challenge. If individuals feel that no one is listening to them, or only half-listening, their confidence and trust in their elected leaders can be eroded.
And no one — especially not those elected members — wants that outcome.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with council members taking notes during a resident’s presentation. But there is a way to do it in a more courteous fashion.
Council members owe it to presenters to smile and acknowledge them when they introduce themselves. During the presentation, council members may take notes, but they should look up often and make eye contact with the presenter. There should be no side conversations among council members, no obvious checking of watches or looking at the clock. And all council members should make it a point of thanking each resident after they finish their presentation.
Bottom line, it’s not asking too much for our elected leaders to give three minutes of their undivided attention to a resident who is taking the trouble to make a personal appeal.
None of this is to suggest that council members aren’t interested in what residents have to say. They simply need to do a better job of showing that they are.
Again, it’s all about perception.
However, just as residents deserve the respect of the council and mayor, the city’s elected leaders and administrators deserve to be treated respectfully by residents who attend the meeting. It’s understandable when people get emotional about an issue that is affecting them or their families. That said, yelling, finger-pointing and name-calling by presenters is uncalled for and shouldn’t be tolerated.
Council members also owe it to their constituents, and to each other, to conduct their meetings professionally and courteously.
For the most part, Killeen’s current council meets that standard.
However, far too frequently, some members raise their voices, talk over each other and question their colleagues’ motives. This was most evident during the recent budget talks, as well as during the early stages of discussion on a proposed ethics ordinance.
No doubt, this council is a diverse group of individuals, with a variety of backgrounds and experiences. While this makes for a broad array of viewpoints, it also makes it more difficult to achieve a consensus.
Again, perception comes into play.
What may appear to be bickering and in-fighting among council members could just as easily be attributed to passion and a commitment to a principle or cause.
Virtually every council member who responded to the Herald’s questions expressed his or commitment to serving the city’s residents, the importance of public input and the desire to work together for the betterment of the city.
Acting on those priorities should go a long way to earning the respect and trust of the city’s 153,000 residents.
No doubt, public service can be a demanding lifestyle, and being in the spotlight for the discussion of issues ranging from ethics to city spending can draw scrutiny and criticism. But the current council is to be commended for putting themselves in that position.
Of course, perception, while important, isn’t everything. Unless observers know the whole story, their perception can be skewed or biased.
It’s up to our elected leaders to provide as much information as possible, whenever possible, and let the residents make their minds up accordingly.
And when those residents speak, pay attention and listen.
That’s just good policy for all our public servants.