As county supervisors have wrestled with lengthy, often unwieldy business meetings, they have picked an unfortunate target in hopes of streamlining their sessions: The public.
The board already restricts the overall public comment section of its meetings, then depending on how many people line up to address their elected representatives on any given evening, to as little as two minutes per speaker. Last month’s debate over a supervisor’s proposal to curb the use of firearms in rural areas demonstrated the folly of that approach.
True, supervisors aren’t required to allow public speakers during these sessions; that’s what public hearings are for. However, not every government action requires a formal public hearing. When hearing from one’s constituents is viewed as an inconvenience, supervisors may want to take a closer look at their job description. And they make want to look first in the mirror if seeking to cast blame.
During one recent board meeting—one with few public speakers lined up to waste their time—supervisors still talked for four hours before taking their first vote of the evening. This spring, the board’s meetings routinely exceeded the five-hour mark, which may not seem unreasonable, except if you note that the previous board typically rolled through its agendas in three and a half hours. The issues facing the two boards didn’t significantly differ in topic or complexity.
This board has the same time-management tools available.
The most powerful of those is the committee system. This board elected to reduce the number of committees to just two—the Finance/Government Operations and Economic Development Committee, and the Transportation and Land Use Committee—along with the Joint Board and School Board Committee. While it’s not clear that the decision to combine four workhorse committees to just two was wise, the structure still allows all issues to be fully explored and debated outside of the regular business meetings. It should be rare for any project or proposal vetted by a committee to spark extended debate with the full board at the dais. Two factors generally contribute to a long discussion at a board meeting: either the committee didn’t fully vet the issue, or a supervisor or group of supervisors failed to ensure their concerns were addressed during that review.
The third common factor is that a supervisor or group of supervisors is grandstanding for the cameras in hopes of scoring a few political points. That can be halted with supervisors enforcing—or further imposing—time limits on their own comments. The current rules allow each supervisor up to six minutes for questions and discussion on each issue. With nine supervisors, that’s nearly an hour. (They may want to try that two-minute restriction on for size and see how it feels.)
Many board members would agree that there are dangers in making important decisions as their meetings pass the midnight hour. It’s a public concern, too, and residents would say it if only they were afforded the time to do so.
Previous boards have wrestled with concerns over meeting management and have looked to alter public input procedures. One even tried Saturday morning listening sessions just to hear voters’ concerns. However, the most effective supervisors have realized that their conduct is the key.