News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion
MONDAY, MAY 2, 2005


When citizens come to visit, officials must show respect

By hiring influence peddlers in Montgomery, businesses and organizations can catch Alabama lawmakers' attention. At times, legislators have been suspected of looking to the galleries of meeting chambers for hand signals or other signs of what lobbyists wanted.

You would think that when real people — taxpayers representing themselves — showed up at the Capitol, they would get respect. Respect is what they got in the Alabama Senate last week, but not from every member.

Teachers were in the visitors' gallery, wanting an education budget with a pay raise. When a breakthrough came, they cheered. One senator told them to be quiet. But Sen. Sundra Escott, D-Birmingham, objected.

"Those people up there are not millionaires like some of you are," she told colleagues. "They are working people with house notes who took a day off to come down here. These are their lives on the line, people who could get pink slips."

Even though the teachers were probably there at the behest of their own lobbying group, the Alabama Education Association, she's right. When real people show up, representatives should listen. It applies at city council and board of education meetings as well as legislative sessions.

In the interest of orderly and productive meetings, rules and reasonable time limits are necessary. But any rule or practice that restricts public participation — even spontaneous participation — deserves skepticism.

Public officials represent citizens and need to know what they think. They should want to know.

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