A series of E.F. Hutton brokerage commercials in the 1970s featured conversations between individuals comparing advice from different stock brokers. Although setting and situation vary, the conclusion always ends with a reply to a query about advice: “My broker is E.F. Hutton and E.F. Hutton says….” Whether in a restaurant, airplane, hallway or schoolroom, all action stops and those around lean in to listen to what will be said. The tag line is always, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen!”
These classic commercials were an iconic representation of the rare personality that listens, learns and thinks before speaking. Although commendable, it’s just about impossible to follow this pattern 100% of the time. All of us are guilty of occasional, inopportune blurts of emotional nonsense when provoked or simply responding without much thought. However, when the pattern repeats consistently, a word or two of caution is justified. While not always consequential, outbursts of this type can be annoying and delay or even sidetrack serious discussions. As we mature and learn to socialize with others, it can become painfully obvious that consistent inappropriate grandstanding can lead to ostracizing or little or no reception by listeners.
Our system of government is designed to allow citizens to act as participants in decision-making processes. Interaction is encouraged and can take place in a variety of forms and venues. One highly visible venue is the public comment period of city council meetings. For non-agenda items, this offers an opportunity for any attendee to address councilmembers on any subject that is not included in the formal agenda. Although the council is restricted from response due to lack of prior public knowledge, this does open a pathway for staff interaction and future formal council consideration.
Another avenue of input for public comment is under the formal agenda. Some issues are fairly routine and without much controversy so are considered as a group through a “Consent Calendar” while others may involve significant funding and/or be separated for closer scrutiny and debate. Highly controversial items may involve extensive discussion and input from residents while others, consistent with prior practice and good governance, evoke few or no remarks. Public input is guaranteed and welcome so decision-makers can consider all points of view. However, overly repetitious or specious presentations not only waste time, but suffer from sensory overload and inattention by others. Even if solid points of contention are contained within, too much verbiage can ruin the message.
Each council is asked to balance rights and obligations of its residents with the necessity to carry out the business of government. This balancing act is not easy and a problem can arise when attempting to contain and direct the enthusiasm of a few who seek to dominate proceedings. In such cases, time limits and other forms of restraint may help, but a private discussion with those involved may solve the dilemma. A prime example of this conundrum is a recent meeting of the Fremont City Council in which every item of the consent calendar was removed for individual consideration by one resident (who also spoke on almost every other item on the agenda as well). In almost all cases, the same points for discussion were raised. Excess verbal volume results in little or no reception of the message. This is not valuable input, rather becomes a monotonous, irritating background noise that neither convinces or impresses. The resident actually used the term “pebble in your shoe” to signal his acknowledgement of this behavior.
Just as I would prefer to listen to council member comments in a succinct, thoughtful manner that does not waste time and threaten their impact, the public also has the same responsibility. Be known by the same tag line as E.F. Hutton:
When [insert your name] talks, people listen!