The idea of participatory government was a radical one when it was introduced by Cleisthenes in the small, unremarkable village of Athens in 508 B.C.E. Up until that time clans, communities, and cities had been ruled by tyrants, strongmen, and oligarchs. Athens was no different. The average Athenian had no representation, no vote, and no voice.
By 508 B.C.E. common Athenians were tired of rule without representation and they demanded their voices be heard. The tyrannical ruler, Isagoras, refused to listen to the people, however, and instead retreated to the safety of the Acropolis with his supporters.
The people of Athens, nevertheless, would not be silenced. They clambered and clawed their way up the steep Acropolis, overthrew Isagoras, and asked Cleisthenes to organize a new government. Cleisthenes, however, faced a dilemma. He could not replace the oligarchy with a new one — that had been done many times before and had always failed — nor could he set himself up as a new tyrant — he people of Athens would not stand for that.
Cleisthenes’ solution was to have great stone steps carved into the hillside in the shadow of the Acropolis where the people had raised their voices in a collective cry for freedom and self-rule. There he invited the people to share public comment. Every nine days citizens would gather to discuss and debate matters facing their town. All Athenians were welcome to speak and no idea, proposal, complaint, or criticism was silenced. Cleisthenes had given the common people, or the demos, a voice, and in so doing he had given them the power to rule, or kratos. Democracy — rule by the people — was born.
Our own democracy is predicated on the ideals of free speech and open civil discourse. Indeed, public comment is central to self-rule, not secondary to it. I dare not suggest that the Woodinville City Council is tyrannical or dictatorial, but I am alarmed that the Council has recently failed to hear public comment and I am disappointed that our city representatives seem so averse to civil discourse and critical feedback. Sidestepping public comment is an afront to the principles of self-rule conceived by Cleisthenes so many centuries ago, and it is unacceptable wherever a free, open, and transparent democracy is cherished. Mayor Elaine Cook’s recent insistence that she alone can share or silence public comment during Council meetings is a deplorable departure from the democratic doctrines of civil discourse and free speech. Mayor Cook and Council’s improper posture of silencing citizens only discourages civic engagement and weakens Woodinville. How can councilmembers represent citizens when they refuse to listen to them? A meaningful democracy cannot long survive without free speech, lively discourse, and open public debate.
I urge Mayor Cook and the Woodinville City Council to restore the reading of all public comments at each Council meeting. Our very democracy depends on it.