Please Change the Calendar
Because months have elapsed since the last agenda session at a location other than City Hall Library, I had almost forgotten the nuisance for me of getting there. Previously, agenda sessions were always at City Hall Library, a half-block or so from where I live, and regular meetings were a couple of blocks further on Watchung Avenue at Municipal Court.
Surely the governing body can meet wherever it wants and it will be my tough luck as a pedestrian to figure out how to get there and back at night. The city's special charter does call for regular meetings at least once a month at City Hall, but hey, that was written in the 1960s and there is no mention of agenda-fixing sessions.
But it's not about me, it's about making it clear to residents where and when to show up to see the governing body in action.
In addition to the Sept. 24 special meeting, remaining 2009 meetings on the published calendar are the Oct. 5 agenda-fixing session at Hubbard Middle School, the Oct. 13 regular meeting at Municipal Court, the Nov. 9 agenda-fixing session at City Hall Library, the Nov. 16 regular meeting at Municipal Court, the Dec. 7 agenda-fixing session at Cook School, the Dec. 14 regular meeting at Municipal Court and a Dec. 21 agenda-fixing session at City Hall Library for the Jan. 1, 2010 reorganization.
All agenda-fixing sessions are at 7:30 p.m. and all regular meetings are at 8 p.m. There is also a special working conference on Economic Growth at 8 p.m. on Oct. 19 in Municipal Court.
No doubt the agenda Oct. 5 will be expanded by several unannounced presentations, prolonging the agony for those who picked up agendas beforehand and just want the business listed to be dealt with.
Being part of a captive audience for insurance company and web site provider pitches is not what citizens want, especially because the decision to hire such firms lies with the administration, not the City Council. As for the community groups that show up unannounced to ask for money or other support for their causes, however worthy, it just doesn't seem like the right way to do things. The governing body can't make ad hoc commitments and sometimes the groups feel rebuffed when maybe they should not have petitioned the council for help before exploring other means.
Not so long ago, "walk-on" items were anathema at council meetings. The council also set its calendar before the turn of the year and appointments to boards and commissions were made at the Jan. 1 reorganization meeting. More recently, rules have been relaxed and items may be added late, without public discussion. Twice, a calendar has been adopted in January, only to be thrown out for a new one in April. Appointments straggle on throughout the year, sometimes hindering the ability of a board or commission to meet.
Since the early 1980s, this writer has had the task of alerting citizens to important items before the governing body and providing context that cannot be garnered just by looking at an agenda. For example, a one-sentence resolution regarding a layoff plan in January 2008 actually meant the city was getting ready to do away with the office of police chief after 138 years.
With all the council's business now crammed into one agenda session and one regular meeting per month and then with extras added on and alternate locations scheduled, it has become increasingly hard even for dedicated council-watchers to follow the action. To the average citizen, the taped council sessions are barely comprehensible. The council could start 2010 off on the right foot by re-establishing the traditional calendar and locations by the end of this year, to take effect Jan. 1. Transparency would increase and so might citizen participation. And this writer would be very, very grateful.