Letter-to-the-Editor: Councilman Kenny Hardin on City Council’s Proposed Changes in Public Commenting. Are We Silencing Our Citizens?

Posted on February 23, 2017

Kenny Hardin, Salisbury City Councilman

♦ At the February 21st City Council meeting, proposed changes to the public comment period were introduced by the Mayor. I stated plainly that I didn’t agree with the changes as I viewed them as a purposeful attempt to silence the voices of our Citizens. While I agree that some controls need to be in place to ensure increased efficiency of the public comment session, the proposed changes don’t offer or meet that need.

I take exception with moving the comment period to the end of the meeting and see this as nothing more than a tactic to ensure people will not sit through lengthy meetings, sometimes 3-4 hours, to speak for three minutes and receive no interaction, response, or feedback. Most people I know work jobs that will prohibit them from signing in before 5 p.m.  I agree there should be limits on how many times someone can yield their three minutes. Citizens should not be allowed to perform a monologue or speak without restraint. I also agree that citizens should not be allowed to engage in singular personal attacks. I just wish the rules were consistent and employed several months ago like it was during the last meeting when a local business owner directed anger at me for three minutes.

The reasoning given for the changes was that there may be business people attending the meeting who want to bring jobs to our City and they should not be made to sit through and listen to all the negative discussion. It was also stated the Council meeting is designed to focus on City business.  As I stated in the meeting, if any business person has TV or internet access, they already know the problems occurring in this Salisbury, so moving the comment session is pointless. I also said business people, from out of town, did not elect me to fight on their behalf, our citizens here did. I’m more concerned about the citizens than them. I’m not anti-business, but I see no difference between citizens concerns and what others deem “City Business.” Can someone please help me understand the difference and why citizen concerns appear to matter less?

We have real issues with crime and poverty in this City and playing three card Monty with allowing citizens to share their frustrations in a public forum will not stop the gun violence. Even if you try to put on new clothes without showering, you still stink underneath. Yes, we are meeting the guidelines the General Assembly set forth for holding public comments, but why just shoot for mediocrity. Instead of trying to be an All American City for art, let’s be unique and exceed the minimum standards for listening and responding to our citizens.

The criticism the Council receives is they’ve disconnected with our citizens and don’t understand or care about the needs of those on the margins.  I agree. This unawareness was none more evident than after the Code Enforcement presentation when Councilman Miller showed surprise that we had significant abandoned and dilapidated housing in our City. He echoed his surprise by stating he visited third world Countries and saw better housing there. He was unaware that this level of blight existed in this City. I wasn’t surprised because this is the level of reality I see as I walk the streets talking with people. Yet I am frequently criticized for it because I speak publicly about it. This is the reality I get when my phone rings every night up to 2am from angry and fearful citizens about the continuous gunfire. I’m saddened that this reality surprises people.

I also took exception to Mayor Pro-tem Maggie Blackwell uttering what I took as a judgmental statement saying the proposed changes would be a benefit because people rambling for three minutes. I didn’t appreciate the elitist attitude of saying how before she was on Council she and her neighbors were organized as a group when they came to discuss issues in their neighborhood. I appreciate the honesty in the delivery of citizens whether they’re prepared or ramble and it is not up to us to dictate or judge how people speak during their allotted time. Also, what is an issue in one neighborhood is not the same in another so we shouldn’t criticize how people respond to the issues where they live. I shared my displeasure at her comments and she stated I interrupted her as she had not yielded the floor. I did not interrupt her. I noted it in ensuing discussions with the Chief of Police and Code Enforcement, the Mayor “interrupted” twice, and both Ms. Blackwell and Mr. Miller “interrupted” once. There was no self righteous indignation about these “interruptions” as I guess they were viewed as lively discussion.

I didn’t offer discussion or alternatives because I’ve grown weary of the level of the discourteous, patronizing, and dismissive way my position(s) and voice are not treated with the same level of courtesy and respect as others on the Council. But, I will continue to ensure my voice is heard. I have personally noticed and received correspondence from Citizens who watch online about the eye rolls, heavy sighing, my being cut off and talked down to, and the exasperated, mocking body language when I speak. I’ve spoken to the Mayor about this unprofessional behavior several times over the year and shared with her that I will not allow others on the Council to minimize my offerings or treat me with any less respect or consideration than they expect. I added that we can have a collegial or contentious relationship on the Council, but I was elected just like everyone and will receive the same level of respect.

Yes, we need controls in place for comments , but I strongly believe the citizens need to be a priority and be heard. These issues are “City Business” and to not treat them as such shows little regard and respect for them. I will continue to speak up for all citizens and ensure their reality is brought to awareness and taken seriously. If it costs me an invite to coffee or to a society function, I’m good.

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