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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Commentary: On the Politics of Long Council Meetings

The job of a blogger is never quite what one would expect. I've discovered this myself reporting on things at times that I would never have even thought about before. The issue of long meetings and civility are one of them. To be honest, I doubt the next council elections are decided on these scores. And I will go as far as to say, if they are, I will be extremely disappointed, just as I would be if national elections are decided on the issue of gay marriage when we are fighting a war abroad, oh wait...

Nevertheless it seems sometimes the role of the blogger is referee as much as it is reporter or commentator. This is because often public official make claims that are never really parsed by the reporters who report on them. And there is rarely any kind of public discourse centered around the dissembling of various claims. That is unfortunate, for in the public discussions, there needs to be some thing of a fact checker than can place issues in the public realm that the public can then weigh in on. At the end of the day, it may be that sometimes these issues are of little consequence, other times they turn out to be crucial for understanding the behavior and motivations of our elected officials.

This role comes to mind as I read the California Aggies' version of the "long meetings" dispute which of course followed the one by us and the one by the Davis Enterprise.

Right away, they are factually incorrect when they state:
"Greenwald insists meeting four times a month, Asmundson two."
In fact, Greenwald has insisted on "more" meetings per month, not necessarily "four." There is almost something Shakespearean about that error, that I cannot place. There kind of a poetic irony to that. Nevertheless, it is a somewhat crucial distinction since the responses within the article seem to dovetail from it.
The issue of whether city staff members have enough time to prepare agendas and reports for weekly meetings is also being debated by the council.

"We're not an overstaffed organization," said Davis City Manager Bill Emlen, who coordinates Tuesday night meetings. "We have been pushing our wheels and we have to work pretty hard."

Emlen said the current workload is manageable for his organization, but he would ideally like to see meetings every two weeks - enough time to produce reports without feeling rushed.
On one level I understand it, on another level, I really do not. In the fewer meetings, they presumably prepare for the same number of items, so staff would be doing a similar amount of work. Would they not? Perhaps I'm not understanding the math here. Is it not better to spread the work out over two meetings rather than have to prepare for a large amount of items for a single meeting? Why is staff preparation time an issue here unless the number of items really are not a constant.?

Councilmember Don Saylor was paraphrased as saying that "he supported going as late into the night as necessary to complete the city's business."

Legitimate questions I think have been raised about the wisdom of making important decisions late in the night. There is also the public to consider. Most people are not watching the meetings at 1 am. Nor can many who have to work attend these meetings on a regular basis. So Mr. Saylor's support for such meetings to go late into the night does not appear to be taking the public into consideration.
"He noted in an e-mail that the duration of a meeting wasn't related to how many items were on the agenda.

"The longest meeting in 2006-07 (8 hours 30 minutes) featured 19 total items, including 13 consent items and 6 regular agenda items," Saylor wrote. "The shortest (2 hours 58 minutes) featured 15 total items, including 10 consent items and 5 regular agenda items."
This statement really misses the point. First of all, the number of consent agenda items are almost irrelevant, even when those items are pulled they are generally (But not always) discussed fairly briefly.

The key issue is not number of regular agenda items, but the degree of complexity of those items. You could put 10 regular agenda items that are fairly quick, or three that are quite long.

In the meeting in question from April, a single agenda item was so complex it required much discussion, public input, and then multiple motions to sort through it. That item by itself took over three hours. On the other hand, there are other agenda items that may take 20 minutes, sometimes less.

The proper variable to discuss is not the number items. The point in contention is not therefore too many items, but rather too many of those long items that require hours of discussion. Many of these complex items are predictable in the sense that you know when you see the item that it will take much discussion. Thus meetings could be organized in such a way so that those type of items are spread across meetings, rather than having several very long items on the same agenda.

Regardless there is a final point to be made here and that has to do with civility. Don Saylor made it an express point during his op-ed to the Davis Enterprise and during several monologues from the dais to note the problems of incivility in council and community discourse. And yet at the point that Asmundson made her attack on Mayor Greenwald about Mayor Greenwald not being able to run a meeting, Councilmember Saylor feel silent. Where was his call for civility then? It is clear that he intends to use the civility issue as a platform to run for re-election, given his track record and uneven application of it, I'm not sure it will give him the kind of traction he expects it to. Then again, perhaps he figures if they are talking about civility, they cannot talk about his land-use positions.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting