Constance Garcia-Barrio

lives and writes in Philadelphia

During the last of his eight town hall meetings on the city's fiscal crisis, Mayor Nutter told a crowd gathered at Martin Luther King High School, "I want your comments about the situation." His staff even passed out forms asking for the audience's suggestions.

But as the 21/2-hour meeting dragged on, interrupted by outbursts and an ejection, the forms struck me as intellectual pacifiers for an audience angry about proposed library closings. Why call meetings to seek opinions if you've already cast your decisions in concrete?

The meeting this month seemed orchestrated to within an inch of its life. Nutter, Free Library Director Siobhan Reardon, and other city department heads appeared to spew prepackaged answers to our questions. It reminded me of an expression in Spanish:

hablar de los labios para fuera

, meaning

to speak from the lips out

, rather than from the heart.

There seemed to be no genuine weighing of the audience's questions - just parroted responses. We even had to endure a shopworn PR ploy: We were asked to say our names before we asked questions or made comments, and the mayor began his responses with our first names to establish pseudo-warmth.

But the veneer cracked at a few points. The audience booed Nutter when he told one concerned mother, "The library is not a baby-sitting service." A friend who attended the meeting with me noted that the libraries slated for closing provided a safe haven where at-risk children could read, do research, and get help with homework.

A young man upset the meeting by shouting out a similar point. If the city closes libraries and swimming pools, he said, it will throw vulnerable youngsters out on the streets, with predictable results. Pay for libraries today or prisons tomorrow, he yelled. He and a friend unfurled a banner before a dozen policemen ejected him.

One library employee told me that librarians from the 11 branches being closed had been reassigned some time ago. The suggestion was that the mayor had the closings in mind before the fiscal crisis.

Why would Nutter hold town hall meetings about a decision he had already made? Why waste the time of those who elected him? The meetings seemed to be an attempt to sugarcoat a poison pill. Perhaps people wouldn't realize what was happening.

Nutter asked the young man who disrupted the meeting to show some respect. Turning those words back on the mayor, I would urge him to show some respect for those who elected him by not foisting sham town hall meetings on us.