This weekend, a member of the Bend City Council will once again meet a group of concerned citizens in Drake Park to answer questions about the City of Bend's proposed shelter code changes, its approach to managed camps and more topics concerning homelessness in the city. The meeting was brought on by a group of people who have used the social channel NextDoor to ask questions and share concerns. Some of those same people say they've attended Planning Commission and City Council meetings to try to understand what local leaders are doing. Some have expressed frustration that the few minutes afforded to residents to speak during these public meetings has not been enough to have their message heard—and hence, why they've relished the idea of having City Councilor Megan Perkins give them extra time.
While it's noble of Councilor Perkins to spend part of her weekend to meet these vocal locals and to hear them out, this reminds us of a better tool in the public toolbox that would better serve the larger community: the public town hall.
During the last version of this meeting in Drake Park, some reported that it was nice to have more time to share what they're thinking. Others reported that it was less than productive to have dozens of people attempting to speak over one another all at the same time.
While we admire Perkins for her attempts, it all begs the question, why not formalize these meetings? We agree that it can be anticlimactic to get only three minutes during a City Council session (still held online, to the frustration of many) to express what someone might otherwise spend all day reiterating to a smaller and more excitable group on NextDoor.
The chasm is wide between a Sunday meeting in Drake Park with one councilor to a bona fide public meeting that adheres to Oregon's public meetings law. At its most basic, public meetings in Oregon are defined as, "any meeting conducted by a state, regional or local governing body to decide or consider any matter."
There is no doubt that on this topic, with things like the construction of managed camps near schools and homes in question, people want to be heard.tweet this
These meetings include public notice requirements, requiring the public body conducting the meeting to adequately inform the public about the time, place and agenda of the meeting. While it's lovely to see a city councilor really trying to help people understand the full picture of the homelessness crisis in Bend, the effort would be better executed were more people—and not just those who can wade through the chatter on social media—be alerted to such things. During a more formal meeting, parameters are set around discourse: who can say what and when and for how long. Some might like a filibuster-like opportunity to share their views, but in the interest of us being in this together, there has to be a happy medium between three minutes and unlimited debate.
A formal meeting would also allow more of a given publicly elected body, in theory, to attend. Having a majority of an elected body present is a quorum, which triggers the requirement for public notice and the ability for the public to attend.
Some intending to attend the meetings in the park have seen the lack of a quorum as a good thing, because it means less formality and fewer requirements put upon them. But we view it as the opposite: It means fewer people will be informed of the existence of such meetings, potentially leaving out voices that may be essential to the conversation. A town hall also allows attendees to hear from voices outside their political bubble. This aspect should not be underappreciated. The public meeting provides an opportunity to air differing viewpoints in a safe and controlled environment—something that has been sorely lacking during the past two years.
There is no doubt that on this topic, with things like the construction of managed camps near schools and homes in question, people want to be heard. Throughout this time of endless online meetings, people have not had that opportunity as in the recent past, and that's manifested in a general sense of dissatisfaction. Now, with the mask mandate lifting by the end of March, and with our community embarking on the notion of "a return to normal," we feel it is time to make discussions like these less ad hoc and more formal.
The time is right for the City to stage a series of town halls to let people release their collective political pressure valves. The alternative, in our eyes, is to see the same discussion continue to devolve on social media, witnessed by many, to the benefit of very few.