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Council directs staff to change procedures to shorten meetings

Friday, August 21, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

Council has sent City Manager Marc Ott and his staff off to draft some ordinance revisions – and possibly some additional options – to streamline Council meetings and add some certainty to when people need to show up at City Hall.

In Mayor Lee Leffingwell’s mind, many of the points in the resolution he and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez drafted and brought to Council were settled. And while Ott noted some splintering among Council members on particular issues – specifically, the best way to handle the “magic hours” of 2pm and 4pm on Council day – Leffingwell noted that he was pretty certain what he wanted to see back at Council.

“In this resolution, you’re directed to find ways to accomplish certain goals,” Leffingwell said. “The recommendation you bring back to us is not entirely fluid.”

Ott did not appear completely convinced, noting that some areas certainly still had discretion for considering different options. It remains to be seen how that’s going to translate into what staff brings back to Council.

City Attorney David Smith broke it down this way: Four of the six proposals would require, albeit minor, code amendments. Two others, dealing with the choice for “time certain” votes, would be ones of preference, rather than code. In this nebulous “choice” area, Council members clearly were still struggling with what might be best in terms of options, all while trying to move the agenda along.

Some decisions by Leffingwell in the resolution were rather firmly supported Thursday morning and required little discussion: No more than an average of two briefings will be scheduled for any Council meeting, with a time-certain start of 10:30 a.m. An item is removed from consent if two – down from five – citizens are opposed. And city code is amended to memorialize the process the city clerk uses to sign up people during citizens communications.

Then there were those items that required some slight compromises. A total of two Council members – maybe just one, at Council Member Laura Morrison’s suggestion – would be required to pull an item off of the regular zoning agenda and set for a time certain.

Council Member Bill Spelman asked that the word “regular” be struck before consent items. And Morrison suggested that a three meeting “timeout” might be more reasonable than four when it came to banning a speaker from returning during citizen communications, in order to give more people the chance to sign up to speak.

Then came the mushier areas of quasi-consensus, such as what to do with Council “regulars” who know the city clerk’s routine. Call two weeks ahead at 9am and, boom, you’re probably going to land one of the 10 available slots for citizens communication.

As Council Member Randi Shade and others pointed out, Council offices get regular complaints from constituents about not being able to get on the agenda. People wait and wait, and finally lose interest in signing up, often because they don’t know the magic time and place to be to get on a future Council agenda.

That doesn’t mean that Shade and others weren’t sympathetic to Council regulars like Paul Robbins. Robbins said there was no reason to ban him from the podium if the City Clerk’s office still had available openings for speakers on citizens’ communications. In fact, Robbins pointed out, the City Clerk’s office had asked if he was interested in a slot on Aug. 27. So how bad was it, really?

Was Council really inundated with speaker requests or interested in getting rid of people who wanted to regularly press issues? Robbins asked.

Regular speaker Gus Pena was not so kind, accusing the Council of being highly discriminatory. Pena said the restriction would violate state and federal law.

“You’re compromising the opportunity for people to have reasonable accommodation,” Pena warned. “If you do this, I promise you one thing. I will take legal action in any way possible, through the system.”

City lawyers, however, assured the Council it had nothing to fear by instituting the changes. The intention of the policy is to encourage, rather than discourage, participation. More people will be able to attend and speak, City Attorney David Smith said, a point echoed by co-author Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez.

Even though it might be tempting to write off the regulars who come to Council, week after week, saying many of the same things, a number of Council members took Robbins and Pena’s right to speak into consideration.

Shade spoke, in broad terms, about creating a policy that would allow a “regular” to drop into an open slot under citizens communications. Morrison suggested a timeline of three days before the meeting, which got the city’s legal staff a bit agitated. It is the city’s preference, in conforming with open meetings law, that a topic is designated for each speaker under citizens communications, and three-day notice would negate that.

The peskier issue was how to handle the magic hours between 2pm and 4pm. What Leffingwell and Martinez wanted to do was change zoning cases from 4pm to 2pm. Morrison suggested that Council take up the uncontested cases at 2pm and hear the contested cases at 4pm.

But how should Council handle those two or so hours. Council Member Sheryl Cole noted it was just as likely she would hear from a constituent unable to get off work in the late afternoon as she was to hear from someone unable to secure child care.

Shade echoed the point, nothing that the unpredictability of the agenda is frustrating to many speakers. While it’s been the common practice to stack later zoning cases so people can come after work, Shade also noted that it’s just as likely that a speaker might want a day-time hearing in order to have child care, rather than having to scramble to hire a babysitter.

When it becomes tough, of course, is when contested zoning cases drag on so long that people who show up at 2pm end up speaking at 10pm. Many are never sure whether it’s “safe” to go out to get a bite to eat or pick up a child from day care.

An amendment by Spelman to add more time certainty to contested cases did not win much support. Notification, once more, became the issue. As Jerry Rusthoven pointed out – and all the Council members know – zoning cases are a fluid thing. What remains unresolved at 1pm could be solved by 3pm with some negotiations in the foyer outside the Council chambers.

“Jerry’s guesses,” the popular internal document that Rusthoven sends out to indicate what will and will not be discussion items, is just that — guesses.

The trap for the “time certain” issue, Rusthoven said, is that the city must post notice for hearings three weeks in advance. Are cases resolved or unresolved? It’s safest to tell interested parties to be at Council chambers at 2pm. Often, though, that leaves people trapped for six or eight hours, waiting for a hearing.

With the issue still not firmly resolved, it’s likely Ott will exercise some discretion to offer options to Council – various ways to address the situation — in those areas where there did not appear to be consensus.

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