There’s an old saying that goes, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
To that I wish to add this corollary: “Democracy delayed is democracy denied.”
At the most recent meeting of the Westminster City Council, a decision was made to trim the time allotted for speakers in public comments from five to three minutes in the interests of keeping the notoriously long meetings from dragging on for hours and hours.
Although I am a strong believer in letting the members of the public inform its leaders about their concerns and opinions, I also believe that the process, when not subject to reasonable limits becomes counterproductive.
The shorter and more to the point the comment, the more impact it will have and the longer it will be remembered. Speakers who want to be effective – and let’s hope they all want to be, rather than just have a few minutes in the spotlight – should be mindful of seeking to express themselves clearly, respectfully and without repetition.
I refer to two of the greatest speeches ever made. Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” takes about two minutes to recite. The key part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” – commonly known as the “Beatitudes” – can be spoken in a little over a half minute.
It’s not just a matter of being a clever speaker. The longer folks keep talking – and the time consumed by them – goes on, the fewer council members and members of the public listen carefully. As meetings drag on, the less interest people have in speaking, or even listening.
At Tuesday’s meeting for the Huntington Beach City Council, public comments took up three hours and the whole affair lasted for six hours, not counting the time burned up in closed session and study session.
If you had to wait six hours to vote – and some folks in Georgia had to last November – you might give up and go home. If you had to wait two hours to talk or hear what’s said, you might want to watch Netflix instead.
There’s more to this issue, of course. Some council members have little to no knowledge of parliamentary procedure and don’t organize their thoughts any better than the most tongue-tied members of the public.
And the longer the public comments – or verbal grandstanding by elected officials – drag on, the less time is available to seriously conduct the people’s business.
So here’s some trimmed-down guidance for those who want to have an impact and be taken seriously: “Be brief. Be brilliant. Be gone.”
Jim Tortolano has covered government meetings since the Jimmy Carter administration. Some of them seem like they’re still going on.