City Council President Steve McAllister has set a worthy goal to make council meetings a showcase of democracy in action. His aim is to engage the community, introducing them to the issues addressed by the council and how that may affect their lives. For
City Council President Steve McAllister has set a worthy goal to make council meetings a showcase of democracy in action. His aim is to engage the community, introducing them to the issues addressed by the council and how that may affect their lives.
For starters, whether committees that start meeting at 5 p.m. have completed work or not, the council meeting starts at 7 p.m. and then after the Pledge of Allegiance, correspondence and presentations, committee meeting resume. It’s an improvement and a courtesy to those who could otherwise wait for hours. An added feature is McAllister’s plan to invite representatives from nonprofits and other groups to make brief council presentations in an effort to display various facets of the community and inform the council.
It’s innovative, and time will tell whether it is a benefit.
But City Council meetings aren’t shows, although they can be entertaining. This is city business, and how the council does business is reflective of the city and its members.
Thoroughly, laboriously, deliberately, politically, thoughtfully could all be used to describe a process that on occasion can take hours for what could have been accomplished in a fraction of the time.
McAllister charged Ward 8 Councilman Anthony Sinapi with devising means to compress meetings. Sinapi came up with several shortcuts, but his proposal to limit council members to 10 minutes on a single topic ignited cries from Ward 5 Councilman Ed Ladouceur. He said the rule would “muzzle” his efforts to serve his constituents.
The rule change also raised practical questions. Who would keep the time on each council member, especially if debate was back and forth between members? Would this apply to those making presentations to the council, and would members of the public be limited to 10 minutes?
McAllister did some research, finding the Rhode Island House of Representatives has a five-minute rule, as do other governmental bodies. The Warwick City Council is not setting precedent.
The question is, would a limit speed up deliberations?
My guess, given the nearly two hours of debate it took before the committee recommended full council approval of the rule, is that it would.
Would the rule make for more engaging council meetings, increasing public attendance or Zoom viewers, as meetings are virtual for the time being? My guess is no. Council meetings have always been attended by a core group that follows city government and those considering running for public office. Large turnouts occur when issues directly affect a group of people, such as a rezoning become controversial. That’s not likely to change. A limit would surely restrict council members and members of the public from playing to the crowd.
So, what’s needed to enhance efficiency without sacrificing productive discussion? Will a 10-minute rule make the difference?
How a meeting is run is a reflection of those around the table – public included. The chair has the authority to steer discussion and eliminate redundancies. Committee chairs and the City Council President should exercise that authority, but as Ward 9 Councilman Vincent Gebhart observed, it is also the responsibly of those participating to ask of themselves whether they are contributing. With a twist of humor that is always welcome to the tedium of council meetings, Gebhart observed he timed his remarks and they exceeded 12 minutes.
Was that his point – that he didn’t need all that time to say what he did?
I’m reminded of Robert Shapiro, the late superintendent of Warwick Schools who loved quoting Shakespeare whenever School Committee meetings dragged on.
“Brevity is the soul of wit,” he would say.
Council members and those of the public, whose observations often contribute valuable information and insights to the debate, would serve themselves and us well by remembering Shakespeare whether the council changes its rules and limits speechmaking or not.