“[In Rockland in 1887,] Mayor Williams made a motion “that it is the voice of this meeting that $5,000 ought to be appropriated by the city this year for paving.” There was a warm debate. At certain times of the year, Main street (the principal business street) was in a most deplorable condition. The mud was so deep and the road foundation so poor that good, sound, levelheaded men thought that paving would never stand and they fought the proposition strenuously, as they said it would be a waste of money. The street was paved, however, and has proven one of the best things the city ever did.” — The Board of Trade Journal, 1909

Speaking from the podium during the public comment portion of a Rockland City Council meeting can be a harrowing and surreal experience. You speak on your cause and perform on live TV for up to five minutes. You and your gaffes are recorded for posterity. If you are particularly insightful or emotive, you might get quoted in the local media. The council stares at you, their facial expressions the only sign of their interest, approval, or disapproval. Sometimes your views align with the majority of speakers, and sometimes they oppose the majority. You give it your best shot, then sit down and watch the chips fall where they may. Public comment unfolds as a series of monologues — some cheerful, some angry, some accurate, some misleading. The council has the option of responding after the public comment portion of the meeting, but they seldom exercise this option in depth or detail. The experience is a ritualized dance, and it can be intimidating to those who don’t know the steps.

The structure of our city council meetings is specified in Chapter 2, Section 2-212 of our municipal ordinances, entitled “Rules of Procedure.” In addition to setting the structure of public comment, this section limits the interaction among councilors: “No member shall speak more than twice or for more than ten (10) minutes continuously to any one question.” This leads to stilted and sclerotic discussions in which councilors make speeches rather than engage in free debate. We invite you to imagine a discussion with your friend or partner in which each party may speak only twice, and for up to ten minutes straight, without the opportunity to ask or respond to questions or offer points of clarification or compromise. What sort of outcomes or relationship would such a discussion yield?

It doesn’t have to be this way! To learn about alternate ways of conducting meetings, we spoke with Quixada Moore-Vissing. Quixada is a Rockland resident whose research and work focuses on building community engagement and democratic processes (see her bio and contact information below). We asked her about how communities like Rockland can make their civic lives healthier and more inclusive. One of the first things she said was the most striking: Regarding public meetings in general, she observed that “even the layout of the room makes people angry.” She was referring to the practice of placing those in power physically above and separate from everyone else — as is the case in Rockland City Hall. This can hinder the genuine engagement and back-and-forth discussion that Quixada said generally leads to better civic outcomes. We can imagine reconfiguring City Hall so that city council sits intermixed with the public, for example in a circular arrangement in which everyone can see and engage on the same physical plane.

Quixada mentioned Portsmouth, New Hampshire, as an example of how to do things differently. There, a grassroots group called Portsmouth Listens led a process of public engagement that culminated in a change in how city council meetings are conducted. Now, every other public comment period in Portsmouth is instead a public dialogue period, in which councilors participate in small-group discussions with members of the public, led by trained volunteer facilitators.

Quixada also introduced us to the idea of citizens’ juries. These are panels of citizens invited at random to form a group to investigate and possibly take action on civic issues. They differ from our current municipal committees, boards, and commissions in that the invitation process is random, and the deliberations of the jury are guided by trained facilitators. Variations on this practice can involve inviting everyone from a specific underrepresented demographic group. We can imagine forming a citizens’ jury in Rockland by inviting people between the ages of 15 and 25 to explore a civic issue vital to their futures — and to reach conclusions that result in meaningful and concrete change.

Aside from Quixada’s suggestions, we also have some ideas of our own: providing childcare (or at least play space) during meetings so people with young children can attend; trained facilitation of workshops by neutral parties; options for people who find public speaking extremely uncomfortable; by request, sign interpreters for the deaf; “community agreements” on terms of discussion, like “assume the best intent” and “step up and listen”; and meetings at varying times and locations for those whose schedule prohibits attendance at regularly scheduled meetings. Rather than clinging to the structures we have inherited without question, let’s ask whether they are really the best way to foster community and healthy, inclusive governance. Let’s be creative.