There’s an intriguing experiment happening right now in Saint Paul over the precise procedures for testimony at City Hall. The long-standing rule that speakers “state their address” before testifying has been waived, in favor of simply writing it on the “sign-in sheet” next to the podium.
The local angle here is that this movement seems to have begun right here at streets.mn, when writer Heidi Schallberg raised questions about the relationship between personal safety and public testimony around this rule. Go read Heidi’s piece before continuing on here, if you can.
Personally, Schallberg’s point is something that hadn’t really occurred to me. Like many people with privilege, I had never stopped to consider how others might feel about stating their address before the public. As a larger over-educated white male, long-time Saint Paulite, and someone in a public position as part of the Planning Commission, I’ve always felt comfortable stating my address. In fact, I’m proud of it, as I live in an apartment building that’s been home to members of my family going back four generations.
But not everyone feels the same way, and Heidi’s compelling post from January made me re-think the issue. But it remains a complicated thing for such a small detail, and there are a bunch of perspectives on this minor change that have come to light recently.
Here are some of them, and I urge you to think about these different perspectives with an open mind:
From the original article by Heidi:
There are many understandable reasons why women especially are reluctant to make their residences known publicly, including harassment, stalking, and abuse. I see smart, engaged women retreat from making their voices heard in the city’s official processes because of this practice that I would bet disproportionately silences women. I’m guessing this might also be a barrier for other residents based on immigration status or other factors as well.
A comment from Amy Schwartz on that same piece:
Personal safety is a very real concern for many men and women, myself included. Women are stalked, harassed and generally silenced at a much higher rate than men, but violence is a reality for many men too.
With that reality in mind, let’s be thoughtful in how we strike a balance in comment policies in local government and forums within our influence. I trust the editorial team here is thoughtful enough to consider the author’s comments and consider exceptions or changes as appropriate.
Freelance reporter Jane McClure’s take on the issue in the Highland Villager (not online):
Community group Saint Paul Strong’s stance on the issue:
Like government officials, testifiers on public policies have a responsibility to be accountable for their testimony. The personal safety of individuals who have identified reasonable concerns should be addressed on a case by case basis without changing long standing procedures.
Requiring testifiers to identify themselves and provide complete addresses gives members of the public, including journalists, the opportunity to…
- Vet the information provided in the testimony,
- Contact testifiers for further or updated information,
- Access information for networking and reporting purposes and, where necessary,
- Verify the claims and bona fides of the testifiers.
Although testifiers may be required to sign-in, those sign-in sheets are often difficult to read or decipher and those watching the hearings do not have immediate access to them.
My Take on the Matter
Last year, I taught a class on public engagement at the University of Minnesota’s Urban Studies program. The syllabus had a lot of reading about different kinds of public engagement and the pros and cons of different strategies. After months of conversation with young students, I came away feeling that the classic “town hall”-style public testimony, of the kind lampooned in Parks and Rec, is a mixed bag to be sure.
Very rarely do these kinds of meetings change minds. Instead, they most often serve as little more than a cathartic release for community anger or enthusiasm. In extremely heated situations — Saint Paul examples include the Ford Site zoning plan, the Student Housing ordinance, and the decision to expand the Linwood Elementary School — people get angry and hostile in ways that can often be personal. For example, I remember seeing former Transit for Livable Communities head Barb Thoman read a prepared statement about climate change and the need for parking reform on Grand Avenue before a room of a over a hundred angry people. To me she seemed impossibly brave, to be speaking before a hostile crowd. I can only imagine what it felt like for her to be booed and mocked by a mob just for expressing a heartfelt opinion.
Having to state one’s address in a situation like that seems like a poor policy, especially when as a city, Saint Paul is beginning to recognize its long-standing inequalities and striving to open up access to government to more people. In putting together a public engagement process, cities must always ask themselves how the rules of engagement might have unequal impacts. For example, which voices are lifted up and amplified if we change our policy? Which voices are silenced?
In a way, civic public engagement is like sitting at a giant mixing board in a sound studio. The people in charge of the meeting or organizing the neighborhood group structure have the ability to amplify or silence entire groups by simply changing the balance within our policies. Decisions about whether we accept emails versus hand-written letters versus gathered petitions have a big impact on whose voices are seen and heard. I recall one Zoning Committee case where the applicant required a translator the entire time and, lacking any East African language skills, I can only hope that the person translating did a good job communicating the city’s point of view. Other key factors include time of day, day-care options, location and accessibility, time limits, etc.
Personally, I can recall times when requiring a statement of one’s address was useful. For example, there was one day of Planning Commission testimony where every single testifier was an employee of one particular manufacturer. The company didn’t want to see a particular planning decision go through, and had brought in dozens of their employees. Each of them came to the microphone and made the same series of points about how important their job was, framing the issue as one of justice for working class people.
But then during the testimony, a fellow Commissioner asked each of them to give their address. It turned out that every single one of the testifiers lived in a distant exurban city like Osceola, Forest Lake, or Lakeville, and not one of the speakers lived in Saint Paul. The Commissioner’s point, I think, was to illustrate how the interests of the city were not being reflected by the interests of that particular company.
(Note: the company was sold to a different conglomerate shortly after this testimony, a fact that I believe was a big motivation for them to participate at this particular public hearing.)
Engagement is messy, but should bend toward equity
In the end, I don’t believe there is one right answer when it comes to how to hold a public hearing. Instead, I think that the processes and procedures that a city chooses to use should be continually refined and changed according to the shifting needs of the populations involved. Most importantly, I believe a city should always be checking to make sure that its public engagement and democratic processes reflect its population.
This last point is crucial. Too often in the past, public forums have simply been echo chambers for the most influential, wealthy, and engaged. Those kinds of meetings become permission slips to continue civic policies that perpetuate inequality. That’s why I believe we need to keep asking ourselves, as a city, whether any given public engagement process reflects our values. For example, how many testifiers or commenters are people of color, new immigrants, renters, older or younger citizens, or come from different class backgrounds?
Personally, I think the recent change to have a written-but-not-spoken address requirement is fine. We need to make sure that all our citizens are heard, and we need to most especially amplify and include voices that are neglected, drowned out, or less empowered by traditional practices. If women or immigrants are excluded by the practice of orally stating one’s address— and I think we should give people’s claims the benefit of the doubt here — then Saint Paul should make this one small change and see how it works. If it’s a disaster, we can always fix it, but in the meantime, I hope it will help move us closer to being a more inclusive, more democratic city.