|Pittsfield City Council Considering Ways to Rein in Lengthy Meetings|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
07:43AM / Sunday, May 13, 2018
|The Pittsfield City Council is spending more time debating issues, with meetings stretching into the four-hour mark.|
A comparison of the average meeting length from the first five months of 2017 and this year. With the exception of March, the council has outpaced 2017 in the amount of time spent in their chairs.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It has become routine now. Nearly every two weeks, the City Councilors talk and talk and talk until nearly midnight.
But that wasn't always the case. In fact, it wasn't even the case last year. According the runtimes on council meetings recorded by Pittsfield Community Television, the average meeting for 2018 is more than 50 percent longer than last year and nearly double the length of meetings in 2015. And those times do not include recesses or executive sessions.
The average meeting in 2017 was two hours and two minutes. So far after nine meetings, the council is averaging three hours and 24 minutes. That is an hour and 22 minutes longer on average than last year.
In 2016, the council met for an average of two hours and nine minutes. In 2015, it was down to an hour and 41 minutes and in 2014, it was an hour and 59 minutes.
The City Council didn't once eclipse four hours in 2017, with its longest meeting being three hours and 53 minutes. In 2018, it has done so four times, with the longest meeting being five hours and 10 minutes.
The fastest meeting last year was in July, when the council hammered through an agenda in nine minutes and nine seconds. But, so far in 2018, the shortest meeting was one hour and 28 minutes.
"It feels like it is a completely different forum," said Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers.
Rivers isn't the only one who feels like things are different. The length of the meeting is likely the most common bit of small talk on the following Wednesday mornings when bleary-eyed reporters, PCTV staffers, city officials, and engaged residents return to work.
President Peter Marchetti has presided over the council both last year and this year and not much has changed in the way he manages the meetings.
"I think there is a whole combination of issues and a good majority of the councilors are saying we need to do something about it," Marchetti said.
It is the hot-button issues of toters, wastewater treatment plant upgrades, and mosquito control creating a stir. It is the makeup of the council. It is the rules allowing referrals to be debated, a recent change, that are all playing somewhat of a part in extending the time, according to Marchetti. He doesn't think it is one driving force stretching these meetings late into the evenings but a mix of them all.
But, recognizing that debates have been lengthy, Marchetti is now looking into the rules of order and weighing when is the right time to become more aggressive in moving the debate along and when the discussion is proving beneficial.
"I don't want to cut off debate if it is fruitful," he said.
There are times when councilors repeat themselves or repeatedly make the same point despite not gaining traction from other councilors, he said, and those are times when the debate should be limited.
"When it is clear where the majority of the people are, to keep hammering the same point that isn't resonating, it is time to vote and move on," Marchetti said.
Rivers thinks part of that is attributed to councilors "rebuilding the foundation" of their viewpoints. She agrees often the same questions are asked every time the issue is presented to the council.
At the same time, Councilor at Large Peter White said those lengthy debates have been bringing out additional details on issues. He cited the recent debate over mosquitoes in which he said he wasn't aware of how many private sprayings were being done. It was at the council level when another councilor asked about it. From there, White went into a line of questioning about the notification process. That level of detail coming out about an issue wouldn't have happened with past councils, he said.
"I think we are digging deeper into issues at the council meetings," White said. "There is really good debate going on."
White said an electrical box on South Street in the past would have been approved easily. But with this council, more questions were asked and ultimately the council rejected what he believes could have been an ugly addition to the downtown.
"We're asking a ton of questions," White said. "Councilors are doing what councilors are supposed to do... Democracy is working better, it just takes longer."
Council Vice President John Krol, however, said the added time isn't improving decision making. And in a counter-intuitive way, the length has actually been stifling debate.
"The length of time is not improving the quality of outcomes," Krol said, adding that if it were, he'd have no problem staying late into the night.
Krol mentioned the same lengthy debate last Tuesday over the spraying for mosquitoes. That had come after a three-hour subcommittee meeting about the issue and multiple public efforts from people in the community in the past. But the council did not cast a vote and instead sent the petition back to the subcommittee for more research.
"If you couldn't make a decision Tuesday night, then I'm not sure what more research or studies will do," Krol said.
Krol said the same goes for the hours and hours the council spent on wastewater upgrades. That had gone through lengthy debates on the council floor, to a subcommittee, back to the council, and then was rejected. The petition was refiled and then another lengthy debate, retreading a lot of the same arguments, took place on the floor.
As the meetings trend later into the night, Krol says some councilors start to feel uncomfortable dragging the debate out longer and choose to remain silent or slim down what they wanted to say. That, he said, ultimately stifles the 11-person debate.
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo said that is a good example of how the council could use subcommittees better. She thinks there have been a few occasions when an item has been passed out of subcommittee to go to a full council vote prematurely.
"I do think things need to be done in subcommittee and stay in committee longer," she said.
Marchetti is now looking at Demeter's Manual of Parliamentary Law and Procedure for such things as adding time limits or stepping in to stop a councilor from speaking further. There are rules that allow for motions to set time limits on the total length of the debate, how long councilors can speak, to limit the number of speakers, and to halt further amendments.
The president is hoping it doesn't get to that point, but he said he at least wants to know what his options are to rein in the council.
"I think everyone is recognizing the late nights of the meeting and some of the changes may happen on their own," Marchetti said.
The president doesn't speak a whole lot during meetings. Marchetti said when he has moved out of the president's seat to join the debate, he can lose track of the length of time he speaks. And he believes that may be happening with some of the councilors. He hopes they will be more conscious of their time and work toward being more concise.
"I wonder if people are not realizing how long they are speaking," Marchetti said.
Rivers agrees, saying that often there isn't debate happening but rather persuasion.
"I think the answer for each of us is to take responsibility for our message," she said.
Krol is challenging some councilors to do more research and discussion with the community prior to the meetings so that basic questions aren't being repeatedly asked. And he said questions already fleshed out at the subcommittee level are being brought back up with the full council.
And his challenge is targeted.
"I think there are some councilors who take much longer with their time on the floor than before ... I think people are aware of who takes a great deal of time on the floor," Krol said. "I think having some level of respect for everyone's time is a prudent thing to do."
One of the most active councilors during debates is Mazzeo. She said she has been in conversation with Marchetti about various options to reel in debate, such as putting a time limit on a councilor's line of questioning -- such as is done in Congress. But she says often the response from the city official or consultant to the question can take time. So while it may appear her time on the floor is longer, much of that is being taken up by the answer to her questions and not so much her making arguments. Setting a time limit on a councilor's speaking period would limit the councilor's ability to ask all of the questions he or she has lined up, she said.
"I don't think anybody wants to talk just to hear themselves talk, I know I don't," Mazzeo said.
She chalks most of the lengthiness of the recent meetings to the issues. Whether it be marijuana, mosquitoes, trash, or wastewater, the council has been tackling issues that people are really passionate about.
"There have been some big, big items that we haven't had in a long time coming back to back," Mazzeo said.
White says he feeds off a lot of Mazzeo's line of questioning. He said every councilor brings a different background to the table and represents a different group of citizens and the lengthy debate brings a lot of perspectives.
"I wouldn't think to ask a lot of the questions that she does," White said.
White is particularly impressed with the makeup of this council compared to others he had worked with in the past. He said with some councils, everybody knows how a vote will go before anyone ever walks through the door. That's usually because of political alignment. But White said that isn't the case with this council.
"There has been a lot of movement with the votes. They are a lot less about alignment and more about issues," White said.
Rivers feels this council is much more independent. And that, in turn, could lead to councilors making an extra effort to make their case because they don't know where the votes will ultimately fall.
"I think it is a good thing. People are coming in looking at the issue for what it is. Every issue is going to be taken on its own merit," she said.
Mazzeo was particularly in praise of the two newest councilors, Helen Moon and Earl Persip. Mazzeo has served on a number of councils and said that in the past a lot of new councilors were more reserved in their inaugural year. But not Moon and Persip.
"I think Earl and Helen have been proactive right out of the gate," Mazzeo said. "I think we have people with strong personalities and strong opinions. I don't see a problem with that at all."
Mazzeo said she jokes that the extra hours are being driven by Moon and Persip, but there is a kernel of truth in that. The extra active voices do create a fuller council than ones she has worked with in the past when there had been more silent councilors on board. The former council president remembers meetings when a single councilor would take a long time on the floor, but the overall debate was still shorter than current ones. She chalks that up to having a more active set of councilors.
There is also an aspect of a change in council rules that allows for debate on sending items to the subcommittee. Previously, once a motion was made to send something to a subcommittee, a vote was immediately taken. But now, councilors can still debate the issue.
The jury is still out on that though. Some say councilors were circumventing that in the past anyway by motioning to approve, debating, and then withdrawing the motion. Others say the change has led to more debate on an issue.
That is one tool councilors used to have to halt debate. There are other tools councilors can use to halt debate, such as calling the question, but Rivers thinks often councilors avoid using those out of politeness. They don't want to step on somebody's else toes if they have something to contribute to the conversation.
Mazzeo said she is hesitant to call the question if not all councilors had a chance to speak twice. It has been used in the past and she feels that stifles debate by eliminating a colleague's chance to rebut something another had said.
In his third term, White does have some concerns with the length. He said he has to work at 8:30 a.m. and as it approaches midnight, he's somewhat exhausted and hungry. He thinks sometimes councilors aren't at their best as the clock ticks later into the night.
He'd be supportive of having supermajority votes on whether or not to tackle an issue after say 10:30 p.m. but then he wonders what would happen with the agenda items that are not addressed. Marchetti questioned the same thing when it comes to addressing agenda items. He said the council could call for a specific meeting end time. But, those items would roll over into the next meeting, piling on more there. That'll just clog up the entire process.
Mazzeo said on those occasions, the council could call a special meeting the following week to finish the agenda. But, she wouldn't be supportive of routinely holding weekly meetings with few agenda items.
Rivers said she'd support a time limit or a built-in break. She agrees with White that after a certain time at night, the councilors get exhausted.
"I think at some point we cross the line and our decision are based on 'I'm tired and just want to go home'," Rivers said. "At some point, you stop being effective."
Rivers added that also goes for city officials and residents who attend the meetings. With the recent debate on chip sealing, a large number of Ward 1 residents attended. But the debate on it didn't start until after 9 p.m. and many of them had left without knowing the resolution.
White said he'd support meeting more often with fewer agenda items -- though he doesn't support starting the meetings earlier. He also thinks the subcommittees could be used more -- and Rivers suggested having the subcommittees meet more frequently.
Both White and Rivers said they've been getting a lot more citizen involvement recently. They said a lot of people who hadn't been interested in city government in the past have been coming out and voicing their concerns on the issues. A number of the issues the council has taken on this year has triggered a significant amount of input from the public. That has also led to increased time used during the open microphone portion.
"I see a lot more people involved and that does require more dialogue," Rivers said.
A comparison of all meetings in 2017 to those of the first 5 1/2 months of 2018.
They both said after subcommittee meetings, they hear more from residents and that brings another handful of concerns to the debate when the issue gets to the full council. With more concerns from residents, councilors are taking extra pains to make sure those questions are asked and opinions are relayed.
Mazzeo agrees. She said there are times when a councilor can ask another official a question, but it needs to be asked again during the council meeting so the public can hear it.
"It is incredible the number of emails we get on issues ... I hear from my regulars but I'm also talking to people I haven't heard from before," she said.
Rivers remembers taking a vote one night without speaking because she had made her case at two prior meetings. The day after the vote, a constituent asked her why she didn't speak on behalf of her constituents. She thinks there is definitely an aspect of councilors feeling that they need to publicly air the concerns they hear from constituents -- even if they had already done so before. With more residents engaged, there is more to say, she said.
Something is different with this council but nobody can quite put their finger on it. Is it democracy working to a greater degree? Is it that this council works harder to dig into every detail? Is it a truly more engaged citizenship?
Or is a whole lot of talking in circles?
Rivers doesn't want to judge yet. She knows something is different and maybe the way the council is working now is what will ultimately be best for the city. The councilors have all recognized the change and are now looking to find ways to rein in these late nights.