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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Though jettisoned, bad idea festered too long in San Antonio

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Every once in a while, what elected officials don’t do is every bit as important and instructive as what they do, uh, do.

So it is with the San Antonio City Commission, which recently — and wisely — decided against adopting rules designed to dictate the content of public comment at all official town meetings.

The immediate upshot is, no matter what else the good residents of San Antonio think of their commissioners, they can rest assured in the knowledge that they are not yet politically suicidal.

However, the fact commissioners were considering such an ordinance in the first place presents a rare glimpse of the sort of contempt we’ve always suspected officials have for their constituents, but which they usually, for reasons of self-preservation, keep closeted.

That the board unanimously declined to pursue the flawed final draft indicates its members have not completely lost their senses.

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Here in constituentland, there is nothing new in the perception that our elected betters allow public comment only begrudgingly and regard its practitioners with contempt. Most of the time we let it pass because, after all, public comment usually amounts to an exhausting parade of the badly informed spouting baseless opinions to an audience beyond persuasion.

We wouldn’t want to listen to it either, which is why you won’t see public access programming trading elbows with “The Big Bang Theory” in the Nielsen ratings.

The difference is, we didn’t run for office. They did, and listening to us complain on the record is part of the gig.

What we will not tolerate, then, is when they let slip their masks of concern. Remember Computergate? In 2006, voters gleefully stuck it to then-Commissioner Steve Simon after it was revealed he occasionally web-surfed during comment sessions, dismissing with prejudice the explanation that he was merely fact-checking public testimony.

Instead, they believed challenger Michael Cox, who peddled an idea as popular as pumpkin-spice latte on a chilly October night: the incumbent wasn’t interested in what the public had to say.

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Which brings us back to San Antonio commissioners’ months-long flirtation with not only openly expressing the very same sentiment, but memorializing it with an ordinance.

The ostensible purpose of the proposed change was to “comply with a new state law,” but no such requirement exists. The statute, passed by the Legislature last session, merely closed a loophole identified by state circuit courts and upheld by the Fifth District Court of Appeal. Previously, groups subject to the state’s Sunshine laws were not required to provide opportunities for public comment; the new statute mandates “a reasonable opportunity” for people to speak.

It also authorizes, according to the Florida Senate’s bill analysis, boards and commissions to “adopt certain reasonable rules or policies governing the opportunity to be heard.” That’s “authorizes,” not “requires.”

San Antonio already had policies that accommodated a rich and lively tradition of public comment, so the Legislature had placed no onus on commissioners to consider a fresh ordinance. The city was in compliance. But even a generous reading of the sense-jettisoned draft suggests mischief was afoot.

Indeed, as in comedy, when it comes to policy making, timing is everything. The directive to develop new rules for public comment came in June, only weeks after Lou Rinaldi, an inactive Marine who scrutinizes his local government as though it were an enemy encampment on a hill, attempted to grill Commissioner Mark Anderson over flooding concerns along Oak Street. (Anderson is San Antonio’s street commissioner.)

In what can only be read as a direct response, the draft — again, now wisely abandoned — described what kinds of questions (“rhetorical or open”) “may be asked,” but doing so also outlines what sort of questions cannot be asked.

This was dangerous territory, and it was properly, if only belatedly, abandoned. That lawmakers in the friendly little town famous for rattlesnakes and bicyclists considered it for so long is simultaneously revealing and dismaying.

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