A chant that has become popular at recent protests, demonstrations and marches is “this is what democracy looks like.” To be sure, protest, with its accompanying noise and disruption is a part of democracy — a very American part. Another part of democracy, especially representative democracy, is consensus building, compromise, reasoned discourse.
Usually the latter precedes the former, but at the Ogdensburg City Council’s last meeting the order was reversed.
It was a big night, many people were in the room to plead for a restoration of funds cut from the city’s contribution to the Ogdensburg Public Library.
Many were in the room to show City Council they were against a proposed change in the City Charter to make it more difficult to fire the city manager; included in this group was Mayor-elect Jeffery M. Skelly, who used his Facebook page to urge people to attend the meeting.
There were three opportunities for people to talk at the meeting.
First, there were several public hearings at which anyone present can go to the podium and speak for five minutes on the subject of the public hearing. You don’t have to give your name. You don’t have to live in Ogdensburg. The Council even lets people speak for more than five minutes occasionally.
Five people spoke for the library during the public hearing on the budget. One, Library Executive Director Penny J. Kerfien, when her five minutes were up said she would be back to speak again, because she knew there would be other opportunities. And, she returned each time she was allowed and added more points to her argument.
Only two people spoke against the proposed change to the City Charter when its public hearing was held. One was former Mayor William D. Nelson who said he thought the change was unnecessary. The other was Scott McRoberts, who questioned whether state law allowed for the quick implementation of the charter change. Mr. Skelly didn’t speak. Nor did anyone else.
No one spoke against the charter revision at the next opportunity either. Each City Council meeting has a personal appearance portion at which anyone can speak on any city topic for five minutes. Ms. Kerfien spoke.
When it came time to vote on the resolution City Council members, who remain silent when members of the public speak, began to discuss the resolution and to explain their votes as is the custom of the meeting.
It was at this time that the people in the crowd decided to speak. But, they didn’t speak, they shouted and jeered and interrupted. It became so disruptive that Mayor Wayne A. Ashley broke his gavel trying to quiet the crowd and Councilman Mike Powers had to shout to have his voice heard.
The third opportunity to speak comes at the end of the meeting. There is a section called citizen participation, in which anyone can walk up to the podium and speak about any topic for five minutes. Again, no one in opposition to the charter change took advantage of this opportunity.
A reasonable person could make an argument for or against the charter change. There certainly seems to be room for compromise. But, compromise is beyond reach when protocol is ignored and disruption rules the day.
Those opposed to the change in the charter had a chance to practice democracy, but instead jeered and shouted. The behavior bordered on a mob mentality. There are ample opportunities for speech but none of the mob had the courage to stand on their own. That’s not how democracy works and does not bode well for the future political leadership of Ogdensburg.