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Ziffer hosts Town Hall

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By James Call

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-993231.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Tallahassee City Commissioner Gil Ziffer wants to talk to people. James Call reports he's hosting what he calls "Town Hall Tuesdays" to encourage citizens to get involved in the workings of city government.

As people stroll into the Uptown Caf , Ziffer conceded he didn't know how his experiment in civic engagement would work out. But within 15 minutes, 18 citizens, three elected officials and three members of city staff had gathered in a meeting room to discuss city government.

Ziffer has written and spoke about the city needing to do a better job communicating with the public. His fellow commissioners have bristled at his suggestions, questioning whether he is grandstanding. However, Ziffer thinks elected officials could learn more by listening to citizens and that is why he wants to have monthly meetings with the public to just talk.

"You can learn a lot about listening, and typically in city commission offices in those meetings, there is not a lot of opportunities to listen and to converse. Because they get their three minutes, the citizens and they ask questions, we don't answer. We move on to the next issue or the next speaker. This gives us the opportunity for people to speak and for us to listen and answer and converse."

Richard Dusenberg lives in Frenchtown and is concerned about the number of homeless people in his neighborhood.

"I didn't want to get into this because it is a really hot issue. It is just absolutely incredible; we have a vagrancy problem and a skid row effect that is unbelievable. And it is just pour it on in Frenchtown."

Ziffer, city Commissioner Nancy Daniels and Leon Commissioner Bryon Desloge listened to Dusenberg's concerns and explained what they knew about homeless initiatives. Joe Barnett commutes around town on a bicycle and thinks many drivers are oblivious to pedestrians and bikers. He was shocked at the reaction of school officials after a student was struck in a crosswalk.

"And the head of safety for schools says we need to teach kids how to walk to school. The attitude if you get hit by a car you are on your own I would love to see change. I think New York City found one of the most effective things they can do is publicize the results of what happened to that driver."

Ziffer says it is through these kinds of conversations he learns more about the city and the exchanges provide citizens an opportunity to influence public policy. County Commissioner Desloge sat in on the meeting; he breakfasts at the Midtown a couple of times of week anyway so he wandered into the meeting room.

"I applaud anyone in public office who is willing to sit down and let people just ask questions on a general basis. It's our job. So ya know. I think it is good. We ought to be doing more of this. You know. I don't know about publicizing it and turning it into a media circus but it is certainly appropriate and people ought to have access to us anytime they need us."

When Ziffer began the open conversation there were 24 people in the room. An hour later, 18 were still talking to him and Daniels about city policies. Ziffer says he plans to hold Town Hall Tuesdays on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of each month.