Wed 18 Jun 2008
Quick response to the Council’s recent “health” problems.
I appreciate your interest. I’ve had a number of folks ask me if I was surprised by last week’s debacle. I wasn’t. The inclusion of this item on the agenda was no accident and is reflective of this Council’s willingness to manipulate the process to get their way. From my experience, those serving longest are generally the most likely to perform this “sleight of hand” – willing to cut corners at our citizens expense.
For years I’ve asked for a few key reforms that would introduce greater transparency and lessen the political “gamesmanship” that some on the Council have substituted for good governance. In fact, reforming the way agendas are created, published and used has been part of my platform these last two campaigns (might’ve been nice to get a little coverage on that over my going 19 seconds too long answering a forum question 😉 ).
Why have I been so concerned? I’ve probably read more agendas, more supporting documents and more published commentary than most citizens – probably more than some of our sitting council members. Trying to respond to these items – many which slip under the medias attention – in less than 2 or 3 days is difficult at best.
How would I change the agenda process?
First, publish a complete agenda 7 days prior to a Council business meeting. Complete means the complete text of ordinances, all appendices, supporting documents and other relevant evidentiary artifacts. The only modifications allowed prior to a meeting would be correcting typographical errors or adding elements to non-substantive items – essentially notifications, commendations, citizen comments, etc.
For deciding issues requiring public hearings, I wouldn’t allow any modifications without an opportunity for further public comment. For example, substantive changes were introduced to RAM Developments’s agreement on Lot #5 minutes before the final Council vote. Neither the press or the wider public had any opportunity to review or comment – positively or negatively – on these changes which had fiscal and policy impacts. That’s a disservice.
I also wouldn’t allow modifications to the budget items requiring approval less than 7 days prior to the vote.
Seven days is not a lot of time for folks holding down a full-time job or with a busy family life. If we want greater transparency and participation, we owe our citizen’s that brief time to digest policy proposals.
Second, I would restrict substantive issues to those parts of the agenda open to public comment and not “hide” them on the agenda. As this latest debacle illustrates, it is easy to “game” the public by burying substantive items in the consent agenda. This isn’t the first time by any stretch. Worse, Mayor Foy has developed a growing tendency to skip citizens who want to speak on consent agenda items.
Third, I wouldn’t hide substantive policy changes by wedging them within other voting contexts.
One recent example, the Council creating a new zoning district for Downtown within a hearing and decision on variances for the Greenbridge development. I’ve had quite a few people express alarm that the height and density limits Downtown were dramatically increased. They were further troubled because it wasn’t obvious that a decision on this fundamental change to our Downtown’s character wasn’t introduced or debated on its own merits.
The timing and placement of this item on the agenda – wedging it in the middle of another set of decisions – was not accidental and was pure political gamesmanship by Mayor Pro Tem Strom and others. Terrible public policy – a repudiation of his and others commitment to open and transparent governance. Bill Thorpe agreed with me that night and said Council shouldn’t continue this practice.
Fourth, I would make sure that decisions on related items are grouped together. For instance, Council approved the contract and modifications to Lot #5’s plaza art project – as part of the consent agenda by the way – before approving the project itself. The timing of the vote on that approval came later the same evening. In other words, the Council created a necessity for further approval of the project by creating a financial obligation.
Following my questioning this approval, one of the members questioned the Town’s attorney on the legality of this out-of-order decision but none challenged the propriety.
There are a few more that have to do with easing citizen access, highlighting changes between different incarnations of agendas, etc. which I probably should ‘blog further on now that you got me started….
Finally, I’ll be coming to next Wednesday’s meeting to challenge Council – again – to fulfill their promise for greater transparency. I will also be asking for a full and complete accounting of how the health insurance item came to appear on the consent agenda. This was no accident or oversight.
By the way, while I wasn’t surprised that political expediency took the upper-hand – an evolving trend among members like Bill Strom – I was delightfully surprised and heartened by the outpouring of citizen concern. It would’ve been nice if these citizens’ critique was met with more solicitude.