The seat of government for an entire city considering the passage or failure of new ideas in a meeting that is open to the public…has an audience of 12-15 citizens? Sounds crazy, but it is true. To give even more context, only a few members of the audience, myself included, did not present or speak during this meeting, meaning the majority of those attending this meeting were doing so because they were required to do so. Even if more people wanted to attend the meeting, the meeting hall was not designed to hold large crowds; max capacity was probably about 50 audience members. So what was this meeting about, and why wasn’t anybody there?
The February 18, 2020 Memphis city council meeting had 27 items on the agenda, and every single motion passed. Almost every item was approving the city either accepting money or spending money. The money received was in the form of grants, the money spent was on various improvement projects around the city, and one grant received was to be spent on a specific youth employment project. There was little to no tension in the room over the passage of these items, and only a couple “No” votes were cast the entire meeting. After spending almost two hours in a meeting where everything was passed without question, it is easy to see why there is not an audience at these meetings. The whole thing was long, boring, and struggled to keep my interest. Even I, someone who aspires to work in a city government one day, had trouble staying awake at times. To add on more reasons for low attendance, the meeting was held at 3:30pm on a Tuesday, a terrible time if attendance is a goal. So how do we fix this problem of low attendance?
I believe the answer to low attendance is something that is already part of the meeting. At the end of every meeting, the city council allots time to any citizen to come before the council and speak or ask questions about anything concerning their city. This could be something as big as more funding for schools, or as little as potholes that never get filled. The best part is that the council has to listen to every person speak for the time that is allotted; they cannot ignore you because you are saying it to their face. It is my opinion that if more people knew about this portion of the meeting then attendance would increase. No city is perfect, and everyone has some sort of topic they would like to discuss with the city council, and the council already gives you the opportunity to do so! With increased advertising for city council meetings that mention this portion of the meeting, attendance will surely increase.
What would be the consequences of increased attendance at a city council be? Participation by all citizens is a crucial foundation for democracy, and more citizens participating will most certainly lead to a stronger democracy. One only has to look at national politics to realize that low participation can lead to extremes that may not be healthy for democracy. If more citizens are able to speak to their council about issues that are often overlooked, those issues may be resolved faster. As with any political process, there may be some unintended consequences to increased participation. The television show Parks and Recreation gave plenty of examples of how chaotic meetings can become if everyone is given a chance to speak. However, that is part of the fun of politics. It is stressful and mundane in a lot of ways, but it gives us an opportunity to hear from our neighbors and find out how we can help each other. If recent events concerning the COVID-19 outbreak have taught us anything, it is that we are better as a community if we work together to help each other.