Goodbye 2015, hello 2016
How do we efficiently conduct committee meetings?
As we usher in the new year, this Tuesday council will meet as a Committee of the Whole. Initially, these meetings are scheduled twice a month and start at 6 pm. This single meeting is currently the only one on the schedule and we hope for it to do the work that was previously done by three committees; the Safety Services Committee, the Public Works Committee and the Administration Committee. In previous years the Safety Services Committee would typically meet once a month for 30 to 90 minutes, the Public Works Committee would meet twice a month for 60 to 90 minutes each session and the Administration Committee would meet twice a month typically for 60 to 120 minutes. The current start time of work sessions is 6 pm so the back of the napkin calculation tells me that we could often see meetings going until 11 pm. High interest items may take the meeting even later. The one difference that really has the potential of creating long meetings is that the content of the administration meetings used to be very well defined prior to the meeting starting.
In the past you've actually heard me complain about the information in the administration committee because it only seemed to present the positive aspects of a proposal without talking through some of the negative aspects. One of the positive things that happens when meetings are run this way is that the committee can get through all the agenda items within two hours. The problem is that when two or three people are getting together to decide important items, no matter how smart those two or three people are, sometimes important avenues that need to be explored get missed. The previous administration committee chairman would often sit down prior to the meeting with the City Manager and other key personnel and get filled in on the topics of the administration committee. On one hand, this is commendable because it shows organization and preparedness. On the other hand, much of the work done there was suppose to be the work of the committee and it prevented the public from seeing the talk through of alternative choices that probably happened but I believe the public had a right to see. The puzzle going forward with the work sessions will be to figure out how to be organized and prepared for the work sessions while at the same time efficiently showing the public that council actually does consider multiple choices.
One of the things that I've advocated for, since well before I was elected mayor, is more timely read ahead information in the meeting notices. Another thing I would like to see is an electronic discussion board that council members and staff can use and the public can monitor. With these two items, Council can come prepared to the work session and the public has the opportunity to see how members got to the position they take during the work session discussion.
Extended Council Meetings, Good thing or Bad?
Thursday we had a Special Council meeting scheduled for 10:00 am that I expected would be over by 10:30. It wasn't. There were three items that extended the meeting; a discussion about the financial transaction for which we needed to call the special council meeting, a discussion about absences from council meetings prompted by an email I wrote during the week and a discussion prompted by resident and council member interaction. The question is were any of these discussions a useful use of our time. My evaluation is that one definitely was useful, a second deserved some discussion and the third was a distraction.
The point I want to convey in this section is that I believe the discussion about the transfer was productive even if it was longer than I expected. I intend to post the link to the video and let you know what times that discussion occurs so you can judge for yourselves. In short, the issue was the City had a loan out for about $11 million dollars that we decided to refinance at lower interest rates. All the appropriate approvals were granted by Council. The original loan had restrictions on when refinancing could occur, because of these restrictions some of the timing for transferring money from one fund ledger to another got off and the original approval by Council that authorized the transfers timed out. This legislation was to re-authorize the transfers.
That was the short version of a long discussion. Toward the end of the discussion, Ms. Janell Smith brought up a question that was asked earlier by another resident, "what is the city doing to keep this from happening again?". I know that by this time many were ready for the discussion to end but this was a legitimate question and I'm glad we took the time to address it. I am hoping that after thinking about it after the meeting, staff puts in a better implementation than the one brainstormed at the meeting. So even though there wasn't a great solution presented two things were accomplished; first we know that a failsafe method is not in place and second it brought the fact that there isn't a failsafe method in place to staff's attention.
The second item that caused discussion was an email I sent to council members talking about excused absences from council meetings. There is a form letter that is part of the public record that council members often fill out when they miss a meeting and it states,
"I will be unable to attend the Month Day, 2015 Huber Heights City Council Meeting as I will be unavailable during that time period. I respectfully ask that the City Council excuse my absence at this meeting.
Thank you for your support in this matter. Please feel free to contact me with any questions"
I've never thought this letter was sufficient to be the official reason given to the public. This past week, I sent an email out letting Council know that I was no longer going to recognize this as satisfactory. The discussion that occurred because of the email would have been more appropriate in a committee meeting but it is a discussion that should occur and if it happened in a council meeting that's ok too. It's kind of a shame that the tone of the discussion was such that some other Council members thought I am an evil ogre for not liking the letter that's been used for years. That's always a chance a person takes when they propose something different. It'll be interesting to watch the video of this discussion. From my recollection, Mr. Campbell brought up a legitimate request to clarify the email (even if I do think that most people understand the point I was making) and then the conversation digressed after that. I wonder if my initial reaction to the subject when it came up at the meeting was defensive and that prompted all those comments about my not getting to vote.
The other item that took a lot of time was pretty much useless and destructive to running a good meeting. This was the inquisition one of the council members tried to conduct on a resident. Yes, I know the rules of Council are set up saying I should protect council members from accusations from the public and some council members have a different opinion of what constitutes an accusation than I do. So that my position is known, I'm pretty lenient to the public on how they should act. If you do plan to speak to council I will offer this advice, it is often more difficult to hear good advice when it is presented with a lot of anger. To council members, I offer this advice, just because someone is prompted to speak because they are aggravated it doesn't mean that there can't be good advice found within a bad presentation. I believe as public officials we're stuck listening to some inflammatory statements. On the other hand, the inquisition the one council member tried to conduct on the resident (who often speaks in an inflammatory manner) was embarrassing to all of Council.
Toward the end of the discussion prompted by the inquisition, it was necessary for one person whose name was brought up to be able to present his view of one of the items discussed. At the end of his statement, he relayed that it was important that he got the last word in so that people knew his statement was the accurate statement. I found this peculiar. The logic of people's statements plays a much greater role in whether a person "wins" the argument than who speaks last. This is a point that I think isn't often understood and it was especially misunderstood by previous councils and often some of my friends.
If you go back to before I was elected, you will see that I often spoke about council matters in the public comments portion of council meetings. I would make my statement go back to my seat and then there would be a response from the dais. I and all my friends and neighbors would judge my statements as logical and the response from the dais as foolish, but I would often get feedback that I should have argued more from the floor and that nobody gave any thought to my statement because "they got to speak last". What is worse is that previous councils took the attitude that they had the public's support because they got the last word. We would all be in a much better position right now if those councils had realized that it is the logic of the argument that is important. I'm looking forward to the next couple years now that this council must realize this truth.