Published: December 27, 2013
Every two weeks, Charles Barber puts on a suit and heads to City Hall.
He has typed out his remarks, perfectly timed to three minutes, and cheerfully introduces himself during the public comment section of the Colorado Springs City Council meeting.
Barber, 71, has been a council regular for about five years and even has a catch phrase to end his remarks: "I'm so happy I'm going to go home and flush my toilet."
Stormwater and a 40-year unfinished flood control project in his neighborhood is the issue that first brought him to council. However, now his remarks cover many topics, including questioning the economics of the City for Champions proposal and his opposition to outsourcing the city's fleet management department.
"Almost everybody is very polite," Barber said. "The recognition I get is, 'Next.' That's OK. It's difficult to run a city."
Socrates might have been referred to as the first official "gadfly" who asked uncomfortable questions of his government and he was put on trial for such. In his defense, he said it would be easy to swat the gadfly, but the cost to society for silencing individuals would be high.
Barber said his goal isn't to irritate or upset council or city staffers but to make people think.
"I am asking both the City Council and citizens to think," he said. "I'm asking legislators to legislate. And I'm asking the city's CEO to act like a CEO and solve problems."
He's not sure if his comments resonate or will affect a change, but he believes the council listens to him without glassy eyes.
"I do my research and I know what I'm talking about," he said.
Council member Val Snider said Barber's remarks about flood control inspired him to join the Pikes Peak Regional Stormwater Task Force and learn more about the issue.
Barber's catch phrase and persistence have made him recognizable in City Hall.
"You're the one with the phrase," said Kanda Calef, a Springs resident who attended a recent council meeting. She shook Barber's hand and thanked him.
"I really like seeing citizens who hold elected officials accountable and taking on a role of defending their economic interests as taxpayers," Calef said. "I like people who exercise their freedom of speech, whether we agree or not."
At the start of each council meeting, residents can speak for up to three minutes on any topic not listed on the agenda. Typically, about four or five people speak on a variety of topics. Some are regulars. Some nervously say they are first-timers at the podium.
"I don't think there is anything wrong with it - it's our government and as part of that it should be open to what constituents have to say," said Joshua Dunn, UCCS associate professor of political science.
However, he does question the effectiveness of the gadfly and said a person seeking to influence government may want to be discerning about the topics and timing rather than speak at every meeting.
"I shouldn't say the gadfly never has influence," Dunn said.
"Socrates was called a gadfly for his pestering . . . and angering people. But his student Plato went on to have a fairly productive career."
Council member Jill Gaebler said the public comment section of the council meeting is her favorite part.
"Two times a month I can sit and hear and listen to the people of the community," she said. "I think they all very much care about this city."
Barber said he won't be discouraged. He has lived in Colorado Springs for 64 years. He owns Charles Barber Construction Inc. He worries about the city's low-income residents and he cares enough about city street sweepers and maintenance crews that he thanks them from his front yard when he sees them.
Barber said the catch phrase is a shout-out to Colorado Springs Utilities for keeping the sewer lines working - a system that affects all residents.
"Every time you flush the toilet it works," he said.