Delivered to 15,000 Plainfield "doorsteps" Monday, Wednesday, Friday & Sunday

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Council calendar changes: Looking before leaping always a wise policy

Plainfield City Council President Rashid Burney has put a revision of the Council's 2009 calendar on the front burner, as noted in today's Courier (see here).

One has to sympathize with his stated wishes for more public participation and more transparency on the Council's part.

But, as with all things in life, looking before leaping is highly recommended.

This is especially the case if it is true, as I was told, that one of the proposed new meeting dates would land on the date prescribed for the bi-annual reorganization of the Democratic City Committee (the two parties elect and reorganize their committees in alternate years; 2009 is the Dems' turn).

One agenda and one business meeting per month makes sense to me (haven't we had this conversation before?).

As for increasing the public's participation, a little history review should be helpful.

We should remind ourselves that Council sessions -- agenda and business -- were VERY WELL ATTENDED before the last, and unfortunate, rejiggering of the Council calendar.

Under that misbegotten policy, the all-Mondays schedule which had been in place for at least 80 years was abandoned for a higgledy-piggledy Monday-Wednesday schedule that 1) ignored the fact that many residents would have a conflict with Wednesday Bible study groups, and 2) left the City Clerk and Council in an exhausted heap on the week that had both Monday and Wednesday meetings.

We should also remind ourselves that the public has ABSOLUTELY NO PROBLEM FINDING TIME TO COME OUT WHEN ISSUES OF PERCEIVED IMPORTANCE ARISE. Just recall the turnout for the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee report and the take-home car policy discussions
as recent instances, not to mention Dudley House and the Tsunami Track Club.

Implicit in this history are two points, it seems to me: 1) the less jiggering the better, 2) the public's idea of what's important may differ from the Council's.

As for hopscotching around town to hold meetings in various school buildings, my question is: How is the public at large going to know what's going on? (Not an issue when meetings are always held in the same places.)

Legal notices? We all know those are 'lightly' read, to say the least.

The city's official website? Even Mayor Robinson-Briggs' ardent supporters find it frustrating to use and generally behind the curve on public information (a recent example was the posting ON THE MORNING OF CHRISTMAS EVE that offices would close at 12:30 PM THAT DAY).

Channel 74, Plainfield's public access channel? How about the people that don't have cable? Or who use satellite or FIOS?

One must consider the possibility that using public schools for Council meetings may have exactly the opposite effect from that intended -- that attendance and participation would be driven DOWN.

Are there things that could be done to encourage greater public attendance and participation, other than those already proposed?

I have TWO MODEST PROPOSALS that address the two complaints I hear the most from attendees:
1) FOCUS ON COUNCIL BUSINESS, NOT EXTRANEOUS MATTERS. Often, presentations made to Council on topics concerning upcoming business are over-long, ill-prepared and poorly delivered. Additionally, the public is often shut out with regard to handouts, charts and maps. When this business is necessary, require that presenters keep to strict time limits and provide materials for the public as well as the Council. Banish huffery and puffery and cutesy bits and the public will praise you for it.

2) AMEND THE RULES TO ALLOW PUBLIC COMMENT AT THE BEGINNING OF THE AGENDA-SETTING SESSION. Allowing the public to have input on items on the proposed agendas AT THE BEGINNING of the meeting would do more than almost any other measure to reassure the public of the Council's desire for transparency. There is plenty of evidence the public is not stupid and can raise important and valid questions the Council should take into consideration as it sets the agendas for its business meetings. The general procedure for comments used at the business meeting could be applied, and might actually SHORTEN the meetings and reduce the level of frustration among the public in attendance.
As Council President Burney has said, "Why not give it a try?"


Bill Hetfield said...

You may want to attend council meetings, but after many years of a non receptive government body, people choose not to attend.
Secondly, the technology is readily availble so there can be an interactive council meeting while residents remanin at home. Sounds like Rashid Burney is thought voice in this matter and others.

Anonymous said...

I think we should give the new calendar a try. Much of the history you wrote about (which I always enjoy learning by the way) is exactly that - history. There a new people in the city, and this is a new time. Let's at least give it the good old college try before we start passing judgement. It sounds too much like same -o same - o, which is not what this city needs or wants.

Anonymous said...

Some towns have Agenda on first Monday, Council on Second Monday, with 3rd & 4th left open for 'emergency' meetings. 5th Monday I guess is the step sister

Dan said...

To 9:38 AM --
Did I say we shouldn't try it? I don't think so.

But I DID suggest there are TWO concerns of residents that could be addressed while changes are being planned...and those are certainly NOT same old, same old...