I’d never been to a Honolulu City Council meeting until a few weeks ago. Features, not politics, was my beat. But, interested in a recent bill, I found myself upstairs in the council chambers at Honolulu Hale, seated at the appointed time for the 2pm hearing.
Half an hour later, as the proceedings crawled along, I noticed that everyone, including the council members, was eyeing a cell phone, tapping on a laptop, swiping an iPad. Struck by electronics envy, I hoofed it back to the office for my laptop. The matter I was interested in came up at 5pm–and only then through earnest (and mostly vain) efforts of the council chair to move the business along, like a housewife chasing a dust bunny that just floats frustratingly off each time it’s almost captured.
“We’re in charge here. You’re not. Quake in your boots, earthlings!” Such is the message conveyed by the high-ceilinged City Council Chambers, with its great seal, period art and raised podium. A railing bars all but the sanctified from the council’s crescent of desks; the unclean (voters, citizens, would-be testifiers) are corralled at the sides.
Members of the public who have pre-registered to testify, driven into town, paid for parking, perhaps taken unpaid or paid vacation time off work, sit waiting, sometimes for an entire day, for their three minutes in the testimonial spotlight, at a microphoned lectern awkwardly placed at an angle. It’s one minute if you didn’t pre-register.
Public officials and the council’s legal advisors may be grilled for half an hour or more. It gives the council a chance to posture and make leaden jokes. But Mrs. Anyperson Hookeno, whose family is about to have its entire geography disrupted by a proposed new bridge, gets three minutes. She’s either nervous and overprepared, or nervous and virtually speechless.
During breaks, fidgeting citizens hover behind the wooden rail, eagerly seeking the eye of the council person into whose ear they’d most like to drop a word, shake hands, take a picture, maybe even present with a lei.
While the business of noting disclosures (conflicts of interest and such), completing the voting process on previously considered matters, agreeing to send a junior councilman to Europe for a youth conference, all must be handled, couldn’t these issues be the ones shunted to the side? Scheduled for a separate day and time with no testimony taken, the matter having already been discussed?
Why should citizens have to sit uncomfortably, without food or water, in an arctically chilly room, listening to a lot of blather, and then have the expression of their concerns be limited to the time it takes to answer a call of nature? I submit that councilmembers can at least lift their eyes from their smart phones and iPads, refrainfrom unnecessary joking and storytelling, give the people adequate time to speak and respect the published agenda times. Oh, and listening would be good, too.