The Athens City Council is attempting to expand the ways in which its constituents can make requests of its city government.
The city recently implemented two new methods by which people can make requests: An online form that can be accessed through the city’s website and hard copy request forms that can be obtained from the city’s finance office. These choices are in addition to the longstanding option of attending the council’s regular monthly meetings, typically held at 6 p.m. on the third Tuesday of the month, and addressing the council in person. These interactions are limited to five minutes and petitioners are asked to state a specific request.
“We’re still kind of in a transitional time,” said Mayor Bo Perkinson at last month’s council study session, during which he also noted the Council Night Out public gatherings that have been held twice over the past two months.
“All it’s doing is adding opportunities for the citizens to get their requests in — just adding to it, not taking away,” added Vice Mayor Mark Lockmiller.
Council Member Frances Witt McMahan then expanded the conversation.
“Does a citizen really have a right in this regard,” she asked. “Not that I don’t want to hear from them, but when we say ‘rights’ — I have a right to be treated fairly, but a right to speak at a meeting; I don’t think there’s any such thing as that.”
The citizen request period at council meetings has, at times, become contentious between the petitioner and a city official.
“It’s a privilege,” said Witt McMahan. “That’s where I think things got off because we allow people — when they say it’s a right — no one ever corrected them and said, ‘You do not have a right. You have a privilege and privileges are to be appreciated, not abused.’
“I think that, if we look at it from that standpoint, maybe we can change the culture of how things happen in our meetings,” she continued.