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City Council’s new limit on speaking should be accepted, with caution

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Monday, June 4, 2018 7:45 AM
STEVE LEWIS/Herald

Sweetie Marbury and Dick White are members of the Durango City Council.

We get it.

We understand the thinking behind Durango City Council’s recent announcement to reduce the amount of time a resident can take to speak at council meetings from five to three minutes.

Efficiency can be a valuable addition to a venue where meetings can last long into the night, especially if the issue is contentious and the line of people who want to step up to the lectern and have a say is a long one.

In 2016, to ensure more voices could be heard before the November elections, we reduced the word limit on letters to the editor from 350 to 250 words.

As a coincidence, we discovered that a 250-word letter takes just about a minute to read silently, and not much more than that if read aloud. That’s not a lot of time, but plenty, in most cases, to make a point.

It was a good move. The letters we receive tend to be more concise and informative. With the lower word limit, letter-writers get straight to their points and avoid unnecessary repetition at the close. And yes, we are getting more letters, and more points of view, in print and online.

The limit is also necessary because many readers, probably because of years in school, treat the number not as a maximum but more like an assignment. A few of our letter-writers would be wise to study the adage “less is more.”

But a letter to the editor is not the same as standing to speak in public. And public meetings are no longer useful – or even necessary – if the public is in any way discouraged or denied the opportunity to speak. We understand then that some folks are not happy with the new limit, and several have not been shy to express themselves on the topic.

“Make no mistake about it. This policy will stifle public input and participation,” writes Dave McHenry, who himself recently ran for City Council.

We hope he is not right, but it is up to the council, as well as to citizens, to make sure healthy debates continue and that residents feel their voices are heard. If not, then the five-minute limit should be restored.

As to another of the new rules imposed by council – the requirement to sign in before speaking – we are not in favor. We tend to agree with resident John Simpson that, “There is no rationale for this except to try to limit the number of speakers.”

And further, the sign-up requirement eliminates one of the great benefits of public discussions and debates, that something said sparks another idea or counter-argument that needs to be added to the conversation, often from someone who did not originally plan to be part of the discussion

No, it is not always efficient, nor does it promise to end on time. But that’s how good decisions and progress, in fits and starts, are made.

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