Our opinion: Time for coffeePublished 10:27am Thursday, January 24, 2013
Ever since summarily canceling their informal Coffee With the Council forums, City Council members have been talking about the possibility of reviving the sessions. It is time to move past the talking and into decision-making: Either make a plan to revive Coffee With the Council or let the public know it isn’t going to happen.
The forums, a good idea, stemmed from a contentious period in late 2011 when the council was criticized for its brusque reception of taxpayers who questioned a pending levy increase. Like lots of new things, Coffee With the Council did not run perfectly smoothly; rather than address specific concerns, the council simply canceled the forums. However, the need for open communication has not gone away. The apparent surprise with which council members listened to a roomful of UAW members’ concerns about contract negotiations earlier this month suggested they were unaware of simmering discontent among union members — many of whom are also voters and taxpayers. And this week’s comments about Coffee With the Council suggest that few council members understand the point of such forums.
The point of the forums would be to encourage community input on city issues in an informal, open manner and in a place less intimidating than the council chambers. This can be achieved by limiting the forums to perhaps three or four per year, scheduled to coincide with discussions about major issues. For instance, there always should be a forum — and maybe two of them — about the time that the council is considering the city budget. And it would be easy to set some ground rules to prevent anyone from monopolizing the conversation or behaving rudely. All that is required is for one council member to put those details in writing and present them for full council approval.
Any format that encourages a free exchange of ideas is certain to result in city government decisions that better represent residents’ wishes. And that, after all, is the point of a representative democracy.