Thursday, December 11, 2008

Commentary on Proposed Meeting Changes

Someone sent Plaintalker a comment calling Dr. Harold Yood an “old grouch” for not embracing the proposed innovation of holding one City Council meeting in each of the city’s four wards. Well, count me in as another old grouch.

Dr. Yood has been an observer of city government for many decades and has shared his opinions in letters to the editor of the Courier News and now on his blog. He is a wise elder who deserves respect, not dismissal.

Now for the innovation: Taking the council meetings on the road is supposed to bring more citizens out to see their elected representatives in action. Councilman Rashid Burney explained it Monday, and on Wednesday said a further hope is that parents will bring children to the meetings and that children will express their views as well.

Another part of the proposal is to limit meetings to one agenda session and one regular meeting per month. Burney said the suggested agenda sessions will take place at schools, namely Cook, Clinton, Washington and Emerson. It will only be one meeting per quarter, he said.

But that will then be one-third of the agenda sessions, where many discussions and presentations take place. On the other hand, the council wants to have more committee meetings on such topics as public safety. These meetings would not be subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, if only a three-member committee meets, but the public will be welcome to come and observe.

First question: How will the general public, not just the hardy band of regulars, find out the dates and locations of meetings not held in the current two official locations? The city web site is still lacking after three years. Will it become a font of information in 2009?

Second question: How soon will this plan land on the great pile of failed innovations that the late Councilman Ray Blanco advocated in 2006? The Monday-Wednesday meeting schedule drove away many citizens. At last inquiry, not a single council committee had filed written reports – ever. And only a few of five oversight committees and 10 liaisons have ever reported back to the full council.

The Civic Responsibility Act and the Hispanic Affairs Commission have not been fulfilled and two new Youth Commissions are fallow. Blanco wanted three “working conferences” each year on topics of public interest, but there haven’t been any since 2006. Blanco’s untimely death in 2006 robbed the city of his great drive and energy and the like has not been seen since.

Maybe this new proposal is an attempt to revitalize the council’s role, but what is the governing body's core mission? To make laws, pass the budget and serve constituents. So it has been for 140 years. Are citizens now so passive that they will only go to a council meeting if the council meeting comes to them?

As far as children taking part, the council only allows one-half hour for public comment and each speaker gets five minutes. And that’s at the end of the agenda session. Let’s see, do kids really want to sit through discussions of liquor licenses or road repair while waiting their turn to speak? The school board now has student performances at the beginning of business meetings and then all the families leave before the board gets down to business- so much for public involvement.

This proposal needs more discussion, but judging by the tone Monday, it is a done deal worked out somewhere offstage. If the council wants to leave the seat of government to play musical chairs, four votes in January will make it happen. Time will tell whether it makes any sense.

--Bernice Paglia

7 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I normally agree with your comments, Bernice, but I do think that holding council meetings around the city is a good idea. The hope is that people who are comfortable in their neighborhoods will turn out.

However, you bring up a good point about meeting announcements. How in the heck is anyone going to know where to go since the web site hasen't been updated in years.

I wish they would have left the McWilliams web site up. At least people in Plainfield would know what was supposed to take place in the city.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It might be worth a try to see what the turnout would be. But if there is no noticable attendance at the first meeting in one of the schools, the idea should be dropped.

The Mayor was sure to get the word out about the law suit with Santiago quickly. How is it that this can be done but other areas cannot be updated in the same timely fashion?

Maybe when McWilliams gets onboard in January they will hire whoever did the website in previous years. Even though that needed to be updated, there was much more information available, especially the page with frequently asked questions such as "How do I report a pothole?"

Get with the program Mayor. You want all this technology and you have it at your fingertips. Maybe take off some of the fingernail polish and you might find it - and use it!

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Dottie Gutenkauf said...

Bernice, the time per speaker is three minutes, not five--and the rules include the notion that each "topic" has a three-minute limit as well. I have addressed this absurdity at Council meetings in the past and expect to have to do so again. The Council's rules need extensive analysis and some revisions.

Call me an old grouch, too--but it does seem to me that cutting the number of Council meetings and moving them around the city would actually serve to decrease rather than increase transparency and citizen participation. The agenda-fixing meetings are where the Council's business actually gets discussed and decisions are made--they should be as accessible to the public as possible, and moving them around would greatly limit the public's involvement.

Dottie

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the above-posted comment, citing the McWilliams website and it not being up.

If the McWilliams Transition Team would have supplied the new administration with the 'password' to access the website, then perhaps the site would still be up. Some "Transition Team"

11:21 AM  
Anonymous JJ said...

Bernice, you raise good questions. But here is what I do not understand. If you do not have the answers to the questions - why pass judgment now? Why not get the facts first?

I have to agree with the above comments. You raise good questions but it seems like a good idea. Let give it a shot.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous GB said...

How about having some offices OPEN at City Hall the night the council meets, so people can pay taxes, ask questions etc. when they are off ????

5:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Change, no matter what it is or how well meaning, is difficult to initiate. This may explain why Plainfielders elect the same-old same-old and why the problems-facing the community go unresolved.

11:49 AM  

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