It’s Time To Take A Look At This Tradition
New Sound System May Be A Problem
By Josh Turiel – Ward 5 City Councillor
The Salem City Council has a number of traditions, some of which exist outside of the strict rules and are cheerfully ignored. Until this year, we were legally required to draw lots in order to determine seating arrangement (spoiler, that’s literally not been done in my lifetime). In actuality, the President determines the seating arrangement and places the senior serving member to the immediate right, and the next most senior to the immediate left. That’s the tradition.
We also traditionally dealt with significant matters for decades by referring them to the “Committee of the Whole”, which allowed the Council to hold a less formal discussion focused on that topic, and getting the votes determined before putting it on the floor. It allowed for extended debate and for public participation. But it was only vaguely hinted at by the rules and a push by the previous Ward 3 Councillor during the contentious FW Webb debate eliminated that tool.
Most people think we operate under Roberts’ Rules of Order. We don’t. We operate under the far less commonly used Cushing’s Manual of Parliamentary Practice – first written in 1845 and updated a few times, most recently in 1964. The practice of standing comes from Cushing’s. Interestingly, only in a formal City Council meeting are we supposed to stand to speak. In committee meetings, we remain seated. In public hearings, we remain seated (including in public hearings within a City Council meeting).
That history given, I don’t personally have an issue with standing to speak. Even though virtually all other communities I’ve taken note of (and our own School Committee) follow Roberts’ and thus the members remain seated. It’s just been an odd thing that we do in Salem. Salem does a lot of odd things, what’s one more?
What changed my outlook on this is the new sound system that was installed this summer. We’ve had a number of people over the years complain that it’s often difficult to hear Councillors speak when they come to meetings. With background chatter, air conditioners, and the like it can be tough to hear. So we’ve fittingly installed an audio system that provides amplification in the room and also powers the TV feed. But for reasons technical in nature, we now need to shut down the mics when not speaking.
The way this audio system performs now provides a bit of a conundrum. Our voices aren’t picked up well enough for the amplification unless we’re close to the mics. And some of us (especially tall people like me) can’t get very close to them. And it’s easy now with mics selectively operating to accidentally turn it off or on at the wrong time, keeping SATV from hearing what’s being said. I think that serves nobody.
So my proposed solution is simple: If we don’t have to stand in order to speak, we can adjust the mics to pick up our voices, turn them off and on easily, and be heard clearly. That means the public can follow what we do, both in person and on TV. It changes nothing else about our process and procedures. If you think I’m an awful person because of how I vote or because of how my floor actions are interpreted, this wouldn’t change your mind. If you think that it’s other people that are the worst thing in Salem, it won’t change your mind about them, either. It just makes it more likely that you’ll be able to hear us