Boring Public Meetings: Why You Should Pay Attention
By Lynn Sanchez
“Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.” –Alexis de Tocqueville
NEWS FLASH: Local government meetings are as dull as dry toast. But if you want to be “in the room where it happens” sometimes a meeting is that place. So you must develop a tolerance for bureaucracy and fluorescent lighting.
And in Omaha, government meetings aren’t terribly user-friendly, either. Most public meetings of the various elected boards are scheduled during the work week, inconvenient if not impossible for most working folks to attend.
So is it worthwhile for private citizens to keep tabs on what’s happening at the City Council? Maybe.
There are a lot of meetings happening on any given day, and only so much time and energy to attend them. Just to name a few public meetings:
- OPD’s Precinct Advisory Councils
- Omaha City Council
- The Omaha Planning Board
- The Omaha Municipal Land Bank
- Cable Television Access Corporation (CTAC)
- Board of County Commissioners
Luis Jimenez of North Omaha Information Supports Everyone (NOISE) is a big believer in citizens keeping an eye on their government. Meetings, he says, are “the point of access to services that need to happen. You want government to work for you.” But newcomers to the city meeting scene are usually in for a bit of a learning curve. For example, which meeting should I go to? It’s not always obvious.
“Two departments that are critical to people’s needs are the Planning Department and Public Works,” says Jimenez. “So (citizens) have a need, they go try find out who’s going to listen to them. But they have to understand where the resolution lies. Is it with Planning Department? If you’re talking about redevelopment, that’s the neighborhood coming together, right? So then you deal with the Planning Department. Are your streets dilapidated? Well, the neighborhood understands that but coming together isn’t going to resolve that because that’s Public Works.”
Dawaune Hayes, Jimenez’s colleague at NOISE, explains that it takes some experience to see what each department is responsive to. “Public works is the one that executes the end product, the street or the landscaping or how lighting is set up. Planning is the one that writes the codes and the policies and all those things, and Public Works implements those. So what ends up happening is when people just perceive “THE CITY,” and don’t understand how it communicates and doesn’t communicate with itself, that makes it really challenging to get things addressed.”
Further, Hayes says, it all works cyclically. Planning makes decisions. City Council votes on those decisions. Public Works implements those decisions. For citizens who are out of the loop with these steps, we hear about the decisions on the news when the decision is fait accompli. “The community is seeing the tail end and engaging with the end product.”
Jimenez says Neighborhood Associations should realize that the City gives away thousands of grant dollars for projects every year. “Neighborhood people must, they’re required to know what’s going on with the meetings. It’s essential for neighborhood people to come to these meetings, to understand it first and foremost where the money is going and how their needs can be met.”
As veterans of hundreds of hours of public meetings, Jimenez and Hayes have a few tips:
1. Find the meeting agenda online and print it out so you know what will be discussed.
It also serves as a place to take notes on the meeting. Or bring a notebook. Agendas are available on the City Council’s web page, citycouncil.cityofomaha.org. Pro tip: “They put everything that’s going to be considered the next time at the end of the agenda,” says Jimenez.
2. Get a hard copy of the Daily Record.
The Omaha Daily Record is usually available at all the public libraries. If you’re hardcore, you can subscribe for $110 a year. It is a Nebraska legal and business newspaper serving Douglas County and the Omaha metropolitan area.
3. Get on the agenda, plan what you want to say, and say it in under 10.
Even though meetings are “public,” the public isn’t always allowed to speak. The City Council’s Rules of Order say “A person shall not be allowed to address the Council during meetings unless those interested in the proposition are invited to speak or unless said person has caused the subject matter to be placed on the Agenda by the City Clerk with the approval of a majority vote of the City Council.”
“You’ve got to be aware of when you will have the opportunity to talk,” says Jimenez. “The agendas are extensive so you can’t just show up and think you’re going to be talking, because they’ll remove you. But when it comes to your neighborhood, if you can stay on point, if your discussion is on-topic they’ll let you speak.”
4. Sign up for Omaha city meeting email alerts.
5. Follow NOISE or your local neighborhood association on social media.
Why reinvent the wheel? NOISE often live-streams meetings as they happen, and reports on many community meetings on their website noiseomaha.com