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Editorial: Time to think about re-imagining 'public comment'

Current Arlington system is dysfunctional; is there a better way?

We weren’t really enthusiastic about the main thrust of her remarks – “defunding” the police to support the homeless is oh-so-2021 thinking – but the parting shot made by a speaker at the Arlington County Board’s March 16 public-comment session did have some resonance.

“Your one-speaker-per-topic rule is undemocratic garbage,” the speaker harrumphed, apparently irked that others who were in the room were unable to amplify the thrust of her remarks with their own comments.

In a very real sense, she is right. The way the public-comment period works, County Board members will only hear topics not on that day’s agenda (fair enough, as they have their own hearings) and only will take one speaker on any particular topic of local interest. And unlike the glory days of civic activism in Arlington, they don’t allow the public to just show up and speak; you have to reserve a spot in advance of the start time, providing the topic of your comments.

The one-speaker-per-topic rule leads people to rush to sign up first so their voice, but no others, will be heard on a subject. Requiring advance registration plus notice of the topic both are seen by county officials as making the process run more efficiently, but they take away spontaneity – something a “public-comment” session should embrace – and they allow for rules to be bent from the dais (or draconianly enforced) to support favored groups or positions but not necessarily others.

We admit to having no real solution, as allowing a true free-for-all probably does not benefit the community. A little public comment goes a loooooooong way, as anyone who has watched these events can attest.

One possible alteration to current practice? Scrap the public-comment period at monthly board meetings and swap in a quarterly gathering where at least [fill in whatever number is appropriate] slots are provided.