Walk (fast) down to City Hall and give us a piece of your mind
Special to The Times
This one word, uttered by a concerned citizen at the end of a recent public hearing, is a prime example of the kind of gems you miss if you're not paying attention down at City Hall.
The question was: What changes do you want to see the Seattle City Council make in the city's Comprehensive Plan? Now, I agree, topics like the city's comp plan do not always summon passionate responses. The plan is a proposed blueprint for how the city will grow in future years.
"Speedwalking is the answer." This speaker reasoned that speedwalking should be included in the city's comp plan because it's an ideal remedy for the nation's epidemic of obesity. He dismissed earlier testimony, saying, "Simply walking won't get your heart rate up. You need to walk a five-minute mile."
Seattleites flock by the hundreds to public hearings in council chambers at City Hall, even though it sometimes means taking a bus or paying parking fees. They sign up to speak, spending sometimes an hour waiting for their turn, then they step forward to the microphone and voice opinions on proposed legislation sometimes with remarkable knowledge of the issues.
Alas, it was not suggested how the council could implement this speedwalking suggestion. I asked myself: "Five-mph minimum speeds on sidewalks? Tickets for dawdlers?" But the remarks, delivered at the end of a two-hour hearing, illustrate the unique moments Seattleites offer whenever they step forward to speak in council chambers. Last month — September — was declared Civic Participation Month. But every month is public participation month in civic-minded Seattle.
At every City Council meeting here, time is set aside for public comment. The only requirement is that speakers address items on that day's agenda and stick to certain time limits. I take delight in all those who do — and urge those who don't to come down and get involved.
Watching citizens regularly pack council chambers is one of the main reasons I wanted a job on the Seattle City Council. Public hearings and comment periods at council and committee meetings can turn skeptics of our legislative system into true believers.
One cynical friend said to me: "Aw, hearings are just pro forma — something you have to do before going ahead with what you were planning to do anyhow."
That's definitely not true. In the nine months I've sat on the dais with my ears wide open, I've changed my mind too many times to count after hearing citizens speak out.
Yes, they've come to help improve the comp plan; they've come to tell how some tax-preparers have taken advantage of them as clients; they've come with ideas to reshape parks, refine the Families and Education Levy, boost affordable housing ...
Take a recent public hearing on foot scooters. Eloquent West Seattleite Mike Malarkey, 11, said he'd worked all summer to earn enough money to buy his silver scooter. He carefully marshaled his arguments against an ordinance that would make him too young to scoot.
"Please don't take my scooter away from me," he pleaded into a microphone bent low to reach his face. After hearing Mike's testimony, council members were swayed. If an 11-year-old can change the minds of city leaders, you can, too.
Time after time at this year's supplemental budget hearings, council members listened to human-services providers. They heard from health-care workers. They empathized with those who work with school children and immigrant families. Minds were swayed. Votes were changed.
Believe me, the council's ears are wide open. And now — particularly now — the council needs to hear from everyone.
After months of work, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels last week delivered his proposed budget in council chambers. The budget showed that the mayor has taken to heart this year's council budget resolution, which called for putting people first. The resolution set out firm priorities for health, human and social services, for public safety and emergency services, and for the needs of our children, who are this city's future.
We're glad the mayor paid attention and now it's the council's job to examine his proposals thoroughly and to go about the exacting work of finalizing and passing Seattle's 2005-2006 biennial budget.
Minding the purse strings is the most important job council members do. Allocating resources — especially lean resources in recent years — is an awesome responsibility.
That's why it is vital — this year more than ever — that the council hear from the city's concerned and engaged citizens. Come down and give us your opinion. A town hall budget meeting is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. tomorrow at Mount Zion Baptist Church in the Central Area; public hearings also are scheduled for Oct. 14 and Nov. 4 in council chambers.
Tell us how you want your money spent. Tell us what services you want the city to provide. This is a call to action and one I hope brings more people to the table down at City Hall. Civic participation never fails to inspire me. In my estimation, these are the people who make Seattle tick.
Don't you want to join them?
Jean Godden is a member of the Seattle City Council and chairs its Energy and Environmental Policy Committee.
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