Attending local government meetings helps people learn about their communities, gadflies say.
Larry Kipp is about as familiar a face at city and county government meetings as are the commissioners themselves.
Kipp is part of a national fraternity of sorts: Members of the public who regularly attend city and county commission meetings not because they have to but because they actually want to. Nearly every community has their share of gadflies whom commissioners, city managers and county administrators can count on seeing at meetings.
Kipp started attending Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission meetings when he announced his unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the county board two years ago.
He doesn't get paid to go to the meetings, and no one makes him attend. Kipp says he makes time for them because he wants to know what's going on in his community.
It's a big commitment of personal time on his part -- time he could spend working on his orchids or other hobbies. He also attends planning commission meetings and subcommittee meetings.
``A meeting can go five hours sometimes,'' Kipp said. ``I go to the ones that are interesting in terms of either land use policy or spending items, for the most part.''
Concerned about growth, Kipp listens with interest at commission meetings. But he doesn't always get up and talk.
``I get up and put in my two cents about half the time,'' he said.
Although he's a member of the Douglas County Property Owners Assn., Kipp does not represent that group at meetings.
``My motivation goes beyond the goals of the tax group,'' he said. ``When the growth is all done, I want this to still be a nice place to live. There's nobody out there being paid full time to consider the public's interest. It's my view that the elected officials that we have may or may not serve that purpose. I'm not convinced that they do. I'm not convinced that they all do, I should say.''
All local government boards give the public opportunity to comment during meetings. The commissions only enforce time limits when an issue has attracted a large group of people who want to talk.
Lawrence City Manager Mike Wildgen said the city commission listens to people.
``But if people start repeating themselves, the commissioners will ask them to be concise and to the point,'' Wildgen said.
Neither Wildgen nor Douglas County Administrator Craig Weinaug could recall any situations where a member of the public got out of control at a meeting.
But there have been some unique presentations.
Wildgen recalled one man who let commissioners know his thoughts via a hand puppet.
And some people have been in ``lecturing mode,'' somewhat obnoxious, Wildgen said.
``The commission is typically very polite and tries to avoid debating situations,'' he said. ``It's not public debate. It's public comment. Their patience is tried at times, but they try to be very patient with people.''
Weinaug said county commission Chairman Tom Taul tries to ``hear everyone out.''
``If people are being repetitive, the chairman may ask, `Does anyone have any new thoughts?''' Weinaug said.
Lawrence resident William Dann was a frequent visitor at city commission meetings until vision problems prohibited him from attending. He said the time commitment was worth it.
``It's educational in the sense that you can learn what's going on,'' he said. ``It enabled me to see city leaders and attorneys in action.''
Kipp pointed out that meetings are where the community's `real news' happens.''
Public comment is typically not an interactive experience.
At city commission meetings, for example, Kipp said members ``never say a thing'' after he's talked about an issue.
``You get up there during public speaking and then after that, they adjourn,'' he said. ``Because of the structure of meeting, you can't have a conversation with them.''
Although Kipp admits ``things have gotten heated at times,'' he says he tries to present his opinions in a level-headed manner.
``If you get up there and just berate them because you're mad and you get very emotional, you're going to turn everybody off,'' Kipp said. ``Or if you talk too long you're not going to have an impact.
Although he commits himself to the effort, Kipp admits he isn't sure what kind of impact he has.
``I'm convinced that when there is a major issue like a tax abatement up for discussion and the public gets an opportunity to comment, the city commissioners have already made up their mind,'' Kipp said. ``There is no way a compelling argument except one that would somehow show them that they were breaking the law could be brought forth to change their minds.''
Kipp believes the public has more impact with the county.
``You can talk to the commissioners directly and I think you can have impact with them. You can hold a conversation with them,'' he said. ``They're much different than the city commissioners in terms of their ability to respond.''
-- Deb Gruver's phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.