Time was Ed Harrison would joke about the council meeting he presided over that spilled into the next day. The meeting was memorable not only because it ended on his birthday but because of the rarity of a council meeting lasting past midnight. These days, it’s noteworthy if council ends before 11 p.m. Laurin Easthom used to leave at 10:30 (the time council set for itself not to take up any new agenda items) if she had a patient scheduled early the next morning. Now, she stays to the end, evidently not booking patients for early Tuesday mornings.
Even three years ago, when Chapel Hill Watch began covering council meetings, Don and I used to attend every meeting in person and still get home in time to write a blog post before bed. Now we watch from home, where the seats are more comfortable, given that council meetings routinely last longer than four hours.
A few reasons layered atop one another have lengthened the meetings. We have some suggestions for ending earlier.
Use an airhorn, not a red light, to signal a speaker’s three minutes are up. Mayor Kleinschmidt asks speakers to heed the three-minute rule, but he rarely enforces it. Northside matriarchs, senior citizens, the wheelchair bound and lawyers have been known to preach sermons, and all Kleinschmidt does is squirm uncomfortably. Kevin Foy, as mayor, often cut people off mid-paragraph. Speakers learned that if they had anything to say that they wanted council to hear, they had to say it in the first three minutes.
No repeats. Speakers, taking a cue from whiny preschoolers, know council can be worn down by repeating the same thing over and over and over. Even the most resolute council member will cave. Let’s return to the days when everyone who had the same message wore a red T-shirt and stood up on cue, rather than clogging the podium.
Follow the recommendations of advisory boards and professionals on the town staff. Some council members elected since 2009 make a point of voting how they “feel,” rather than weighing facts and recommendations from people who know what they’re doing.
Grow a backbone. This means you, council members easily swayed by a parade of speakers angrily demanding you vote against your better judgment. It’s uncomfortable having people mad at you. But the decisions you were elected to make are going to leave at least one faction angry. Live with it.
Speak civilly to one another and respect differing opinions on the dais. A council member who responds to her colleagues with disdain and belittles anyone who disagrees with her pushes her colleagues to dig in their heels. Discussion degenerates into argument, and that always takes more time as members feel the need to defend themselves vociferously.
We’ve had enough meetings for the record books. This fall, let’s get down to business and still turn out the lights before midnight.
– Nancy Oates