Tacoma Citizens Forum: Local government at its rawest

Tacoma residents discuss issues at the monthly Tacoma Citizens Forum.
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Tacoma residents discuss issues at the monthly Tacoma Citizens Forum.
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Politics & Government

‘Democracy is messy:’ A look at Tacoma’s sometimes raucous, often long-winded Citizens Forum

March 23, 2017 07:00 AM

Nanette Reetz was irritated.

“I’d like to ask the city manager to please pay attention,” she said in January at a Citizens Forum during a Tacoma City Council meeting. “I know you’re leaving town, but you could at least give us the courtesy of pretending to listen.”

In front of the council and then-City Manager T.C. Broadnax, Reetz said she felt like she and other opponents of a liquefied natural gas plant planned for the Tacoma Tideflats were being ignored.

It wasn’t the first time Reetz had talked about feeling that way. At past meetings, she’s repeatedly asked council members and Broadnax to put down their phones.

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“I’m frustrated,” Reetz went on. “I live in Northeast Tacoma, I’ve been to every single meeting this year, and our voices aren’t being heard. I don’t know what it’s going to take. I don’t know why any of you got into office.”

She didn’t get a response.

I’m frustrated. I live in Northeast Tacoma, I’ve been to every single meeting this year, and our voices aren’t being heard. I don’t know what it’s going to take. I don’t know why any of you got into office

Nanette Reetz, speaking at Citizens Forum against the proposed LNG plant

For better or worse, that’s how Citizens Forum works.

When Tacoma’s populace is fired up about something, Citizens Forum is one of its choice outlets. Every person who shows up gets three minutes to speak on whatever they want, and it usually takes place at the second City Council meeting of the month.

Depending on the day and whom you ask, the ritual — which sometimes goes for hours — is a vital democratic institution or a lengthy exercise that can quickly devolve into what some describe as a bullying atmosphere.

“I think people who are presenting at Citizens Forum are sometimes forgetting — this is something I always try to remember in my personal and professional life — that people are people,” said Councilman Joe Lonergan.

THREE MINUTES ON THE CLOCK

The second Tuesday of the month is local government at its rawest. People consistently show up — usually at least 10, and that’s a fairly slow night.

They plead their case about projects at the Port of Tacoma, the future redesign of North 21st Street, homeless camps, sanctuary city status, and on and on.

Topics are supposed to be limited to things under the city’s jurisdiction, but that notion often gets tossed: One forum regular is known for riffing on the Bible and the seed of Cain for minutes before looping back to city business at the end of her time.

At Tuesday’s forum, a few speakers suggested Tacoma allow regulated tent cities, and spoke of their potential benefit as a stepping stone to get homeless people into stable, permanent housing.

“We’re wondering if we could get a space to which we can address homelessness more directly instead of having the homeless scatter throughout the city. ... a legal space that is regulated, sanitary, that all agencies could come together and address each of the populations,” said Jeremiah Melson, with the Tacoma REACH Center.

On controversial issues, testimony often is accompanied by applause, occasionally jeers and sometimes tears. One former ship captain who spoke against the proposed LNG plant at Tuesday’s forum peppered his testimony with R-rated language.

In the past year, the largest and most consistent turnout at Citizens Forum has been members of RedLine Tacoma, a group of resident activists born from opposition to a methanol plant planned for the Port of Tacoma.

The difficult part for the public and the council is that it’s not interactive, so when important issues are raised it’s not truly a forum for a community conversation

Councilman Conor McCarthy

Since plans for that project were withdrawn last spring, RedLine Tacoma — with which Reetz is allied — has been fighting Puget Sound Energy’s LNG plant on the Tideflats.

Sometimes dozens strong, they come wearing red and holding signs demanding further environmental review of the project. Occasionally they do a call and response. Some bring their children to testify.

At Tuesday’s Citizens Forum — which lasted an hour and 40 minutes — one RedLine ally broke into song to the tune of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song,” also known as “Day O.”

“Hell no, oh hell no, the LNG plant’s a no-go,” sang Marilyn Kimmerling.

Joined by others, Kimmerling sang several verses describing how the LNG plant would hurt air and water quality and be a danger to Tacoma.

The audience joined in, bellowing the revised lyrics. Council members grinned. As Kimmerling’s three minutes expired, the beeping timer was left unmuted, punctuating every few seconds of the song for about a minute before it ended.

Afterward, there was raucous applause from the audience and amused smiles on the council dais.

When RedLine members and other organized groups hear something at the meeting they don’t like, they’re similarly not shy about expressing disagreement.

That can make it intimidating for folks with an unpopular opinion to speak their mind, council members said. And when so many people show up month after month on the same issue, they can crowd out voices that haven’t been heard.

“There’s a point where you kind of go, it’s not great, it’s messy — but democracy is messy,” former City Councilman David Boe said.

HOW IT GOT ITS START

Citizens Forum started in 1993, when the City Council adopted the ritual after the Charter Review Committee recommended it.

Before Citizens Forum, if residents wanted to talk about something not on the agenda, they had to submit written requests to the city clerk one week before a council meeting. If they did, the floor was theirs for up to 10 minutes each.

Citizens Forum was adopted in Tacoma in 1993 after the Charter Review Committee recommended adding one to council meetings. At that time, it was 30 minutes set aside at the end of the council meeting once a month.

When Citizens Forum started, it was a dedicated 30 minutes at the end of the council meeting, once a month, for public comment on topics not on the council’s weekly agenda.

Council members were supposed to limit speaker comments and divide the 30 minutes evenly among those who signed up. Soon, the forum stretched to accommodate all who wanted to speak.

At some point, the forum devolved into a sideshow, used by a handful of people to berate council members on live TV, according to the News Tribune archives. By May 2000, it had gotten so unruly that the council decided to stop televising that part of the meeting, saying it had turned into “a tractor pull,” according to then-Mayor Brian Ebersole.

Forum regulars decried the move and behaved themselves for a while. Five months later, Citizens Forum was returned to the airwaves.

The forum is intended to be a listening activity, and City Council members usually don’t respond to speakers, even if they’re being attacked.

Council members also hear many of the same people speak on the same issues month after month. Sometimes, they might get up and leave the chambers for a few minutes during hours of testimony to get a cup of tea, Councilwoman Lauren Walker Lee said. Sometimes they check their phones.

That can lead to a disjointed feeling: People pour their hearts out, and at the end of three minutes the council politely says thank you and calls the next name.

Councilman Conor McCarthy said the lack of back-and-forth makes for an awkward divide.

“The difficult part for the public and the council is that it’s not interactive, so when important issues are raised it’s not truly a forum for a community conversation,” McCarthy said.

“That makes it difficult for council members, who would like to address issues and have a dialogue, and it makes it difficult for the public who show up and speak their mind and their heart, and we simply don’t respond because of the format.”

Boe said he gets the frustration of those who show up each month.

“I do see the other side — you have an issue you’re very passionate about and you come once a month and you get a lot of people energized about it and nothing seems to happen,” he said. “You look at the council, and they look like they’re not fully engaged in discussion, and it’s like well, what’s the point?”

Sometimes the council does address the audience, but usually at the very beginning or end of the forum. Allowing council responses to each speaker would be time consuming, and the amount of time each speaker got would inevitably shrink, McCarthy said.

Personally, to go to the City Council meeting and to talk about issues, I really have no hope that it’s going to influence or sway the council in any way. … It’s a good opportunity to let other people in the city know what’s going on — it’s an important media tool, if anything

Claudia Riedener, a founder of RedLine Tacoma

Some regulars say they don’t care if council members hang on their every word. Claudia Riedener, a founder of RedLine Tacoma, said Citizens Forum is a unique — and televised — chance to get the word out about the group’s concerns.

“Personally, to go to the City Council meeting and to talk about issues, I really have no hope that it’s going to influence or sway the council in any way,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity to let other people in the city know what’s going on — it’s an important media tool, if anything.”

SOMETIMES, IT GETS RESULTS

There are times when the city is able to help people or connect them with resources. In December, the council sent staff chasing after a fed-up homeless woman who wanted to find out where she was supposed to go — the shelters were full, she said, and she’d been told she couldn’t remain at her current campsite.

Of the six years he was on the council, Boe said, there were maybe a dozen times when someone came forward with something council members hadn’t heard before.

“Sometimes people did wait a long time just to come forward on something and it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m so glad you came forward,’ ” Boe said.

Randy Lewis, government relations manager for the city, remembered one time a comment made at Citizens Forum pushed city leaders to try to change state law.

After a longtime stalker killed Tacoma teacher Jennifer Paulson outside her school in 2010, her father, Ken, came to Citizens Forum and asked the council to support a statewide bill that would allow victims to petition the courts for a stalking-protection order.

“It was a pretty compelling story he was telling,” Lewis recalled. The city supported the legislation, which eventually became law.

There’s a point where you kind of go, it’s not great, it’s messy — but democracy is messy

Former City Councilman David Boe

Former mayor Bill Baarsma said that while there were times that he had to gavel people down or have them removed from council meetings, the Citizens Forum is a vital part of city government.

“It’s consistent with the First Amendment right to petition — it’s an opportunity for people, if they have the courage to do it, to get up and stand at a podium and state your case. It’s an opportunity for people to express concerns,” Baarsma said.

Peter Keay — who attended his second Citizens Forum this week to plead with the city to add more pedestrian safety measures at the McCarver railroad crossing, where two runners have died since November 2015 — said he appreciated the chance to say his piece.

“I think it is a good opportunity for people to confront city leadership. It’s nice that there are some city representatives who listen and stay in the room,” Keay said. “Not all are in the room right now. But it is nice to have that opportunity. I think that it’s important.”

Staff photographer Joshua Bessex contributed to this report

Candice Ruud: 253-597-8441, @candiceruud