tongo51 / Can Stock Photo
tongo51 / Can Stock Photo

Starla Pointer: Be the public at a public meeting

City councils, school boards, planning commissions, county commissions and other public bodies all have public meetings on a regular basis. And they discuss important issues, such as how to spend taxpayers’ money, who will fill leadership roles, how property can be used and how children will be educated.

Yet something is often missing from these meetings: The public.

Occasionally, boardrooms or council chambers are crowded with upset citizens, worrying that a school program will be eliminated, a street will be closed or a marijuana retailer will be authorized next door.

More often, one or two people show up to address specific issues of personal interest. Once they’ve had their say, they leave.

School board meetings typically open with a student presentation, so they start out packed with parents. But as soon as the presentation is over, the parents leave, often heading for an ice cream shop.

Everyone is welcome at government meetings, McMinnville Mayor Scott Hill said. “We’re always open to having people come in and visit,” he said.
But often, there are no visitors. The meeting is limited to elected officials, paid staff and a lone reporter.

Guest Writer

Years beforeStarla Pointer joined the News-Register in 1982, she started going to school board meetings in her hometown as the elected representative from Reedsport High School. She now attends McMinnville School Board meetings, and other school and city meetings, in her capacity as a reporter. She finds most of the sessions interesting, but she’d love to see more citizens showing up for the proceedings.

That’s too bad, because public meetings can be fascinating, provided you pay attention to the subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — interplay. They provide valuable learning experiences, not to mention opportunities to actually influence the governmental process.

Hill is hooked on meetings. In addition to presiding over the McMinnville City Council on the second and fourth Tuesdays, he attends dozens of sessions called by city committees — just to listen.

“I’m in the role of a citizen who’s interested and picking up so much,” he said. That’s why he retired, he joked — so he’d have time for all those meetings.
Hill has learned about things he didn’t even know would interest him. He’s learned about landscape design from the Landscape Review Committee, aviation from the Airport Committee, architecture from the Historic Building Committee.

Of course, public meetings aren’t always the most exciting events. Portions are inevitably filled with administrative minutiae and important, but dry, details. They can be “mind-numbing,” conceded Yamhill County Commissioner Mary Starrett.

Yet the matters decided at those meetings have a direct impact on your taxes, and, often, your lifestyle. If you don’t attend a few meetings, or find other ways to keep informed, you’ll miss out on the chance to be heard before decisions are made.

“People are very skeptical of government, as well they should be,” Starrett said. That’s why it’s so important to be informed, she said.
Of course, not everyone is like Hill, with the time and patience for myriad meetings.

The county commissioners hold their formal meetings at 10 a.m. Thursdays, when many people are working. Most city councils and school boards meet in the evening, when many people have family obligations.

Attend if you can. If you can’t, read about it in the News-Register. Or read the minutes — a written record of what went on — afterward. They can be found on the governing body’s website, or obtained in paper form by contacting city halls or the school district offices.

Some meetings, such as those of the city county and county commission, are aired on McMinnville Community Media’s local cable station, found on Channels 11 or 27 on local cable systems.

Starrett also suggested becoming involved with groups following issues of particular interest. Such groups not only will keep you informed, but also will let you know when you can testify, she said.

If you’re attend a meeting in person, you’ll be given an opportunity to speak. Every group sets aside time for public comments, usually in three-minute blocks.
Board or council members probably will move on to other items on the agenda after you speak, Hill said, rather than engage you in a discussion. But don’t assume you’re being ignored.

“We absolutely take into consideration what we hear from the public,” Starrett said.

If you can’t be there in person, you still take part by submitting comments in writing. Or you can call or email an elected official or school, city or county staff member anytime.

“We like to hear a variety of opinions,” said Scott Schieber, chairman of the McMinnville School Board.

He would much prefer to hear directly from the public, at a meeting or through personal contact, than read a complaint about the district on social media. Face-to-face discussion is more likely to bring about understanding, he said.

By attending a meeting, you’ll not only have a chance to add your two cents, ou’ll also learn about that public body and how its processes work.

For instance, Schieber said meetings could help people understand the way school funding works in Oregon and how districts face a continual struggle. In addition, he said, people will learn that school boards consist of volunteers who set policies, approve operating budgets and bond requests, and hire superintendents, but don’t usually become involved in the day-to-day running of classrooms.

People who’ve never witnessed the process may think decisions are “a done deal” prior to the meeting. Board and council members, on the other hand, say they are always open to considering public opinion. 

But if you speak up, you may raise a point they’ve never heard. Or you might be the 100th person to raise the same point, but the one who finally tips the scales in favor of your position.

If you’ve never been to a school board meeting or city council session, you should go some time. “There’s a joy in knowing what’s going on,” Mayor Hill said.
Don’t let government be like Mark Twain’s description of the weather — something everyone complains about, but no one fixes. Speak up if you suspect something needs fixing.

Maybe the issue that interests you will be settled your way. Or maybe not.

Either way, you can be proud you took part.


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