A 20-year old piece of bad advice has become the mantra of the current City Council, as well as the rationale for the apparently endless nattering of Council members.
A while ago, in the face of a rising tide of impatience at the excessive length of Council meetings, Council member Ken Genser cited the advice a School Board member gave him when he won his first term 20 years ago. She said that he should always remember that the meetings were for Council members, not for the public.
Council member Pam O’Connor repeated the piquant notion the other night, as if to
justify the extended monologues she and her more loquacious colleagues regularly deliver.
Time and time again, even if they have nothing to say, they say it at great length.
Council members also seem to enjoy bringing the meetings to a full stop to grill staff
members, which could be done as easily and more efficiently in advance of the meetings.
But this semi-weekly talkathon is only part of a larger problem. As the vile warden said to Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is failure to communicate.”
By law, all of the City’s official business must take place at City Council meetings. Proposals, policies, ordinances, rules, and issues are all discussed, debated, and approved or rejected in these meetings, and the public must be allowed to speak on all the items on the meetings’ agendas.
But the meetings seem deliberately designed to discourage public attendance and participation. They begin at 5:45 p.m., at which time the Council approves the Consent Calendar – generally with no discussion. though its items often involve the expenditure of millions of dollars and/or contain significant policy changes. The Council then goes into executive session to discuss pending litigation for an hour or so. Generally, the public session doesn’t resume until 7:30 or 8, by which time people who arrived at 5:45 p.m. have had nothing to do but stare at the City Council chamber ceiling.
Agendas are almost always overloaded. And demented. Items are not heard in order of their importance, relevance or residents’ interests, but by category, and in a pre-ordained numerical order.
The pre-ordained order outranks residents, obliterates sense, discourages public participation and can keep the Council off-balance and knee-deep in minutia for hours.
We don’t know where the agenda order came from. Or who devised it, but major changes are long overdue.
First, executive sessions, which involve a relatively small number of people, should be held after the public session, not in the middle of it, or scheduled on another day, with the results, if any, posted publicly immediately after the sessions, and nnounced at the next Council meeting.
Second, the meetings should begin at 7 p.m. with the Consent Calendar, which would give it more much-needed public exposure.
Third, the calendar should be followed by the rest of the evening’s agenda – arranged in order of the items’ significance and/or the public’s interest in them, with such housekeeping items as the second reading and approval of ordinances coming at the end of the meeting.
Fourth, the meeting agendas should be trimmed to workable lengths.
Fifth, as the people’s opinions are more important than the opinions of either the staff or the Council members, Council members should impose time limits on themselves and staff members. As it is, Council members can speak non-stop for hours, while members of the public are limited to two or three minutes each.
Since, as Jefferson noted, the people’s opinion comes first, and, theoretically anyway, Council members represent the people,, it is more important that they hear the people than that the people hear them.
At recent meetings, both the mayor and mayor pro-tem have asked people to trim their comments or not speak at all in the interests of moving the agenda. And this week, O’Connor, adding insult to insult, suggested that people could always send emails to Council members, or accost them in the grocery store to speak their pieces. And so the democratic process is reduced to cgance encounters over the lettuce.
In all these ways, the people are treated as supplicants, begging for favors, rather than the leading players in the civic drama. It is no wonder that every major residents’ request made in 2007 was rejected by the Counci. ,
Sixth, priorities must be set. When the Council spends more hours at more meetings (as it did last year) discussing the retail and restaurant “mix” on Third Street than the revision of the General Plan, things are definitely out of whack.
Residents have complained about this chaotic, counter-productive and punishing arrangement for years. It’s time for the Council to respond and reorder the meetings along more workable and democratic lines.