Saturday, December 16, 2006

proposed amendment to Town Board rules--meetings must end by 11:15 PM unless there is unanimous consent

I intend to propose a rules change to the rules of the Town Board in January that all Town Board meetings and work sessions end no later than 11:15 PM unless there is unanimous consent by the members of the Town Board. In 2006 many of our meetings ended after midnight. This is unfair to town staff. A tired Town Board is more likely to make mistakes. In addition, post midnight meetings is not real open government. How many residents will stay up to attend, speak at or watch Town Board meetings/work sessions after midnight?


Anonymous said...

What about also starting a half-hour earlier?

Anonymous said...

A great suggestion. I suggest that the Board reduce the number of public hearings held on one evening.

Anonymous said...

11:15 is too late-how about 11 PM?

Anonymous said...

Paul, if you want meetings to end by 11:15 you will have to stop letting everybody speak and go on and on. Make a choice. Either you control the speaking or meetings go on indefinitely.

How about adopting a policy for public hearings that when a point has been made two or three times, everybody else who starts to make the same point is told simply to note his agreement with the point and then sit down. You will save one or two hours at each meeting. Also, stop making your interminable speeches about how you feel every time a speaker says something. The arguments that follow take up so much time. You take up too much of the meeting.

Board meetings are not too long. They are out of control and it takes three times as much time as is necessary to finish an item of business.

hal samis said...

Public Hearings are protected by the State Open Meetings Laws. They will end when they end. Of course, they can be adjourned to another date but that is often taken as a political no-no by those who show up to speak. Still it is better than not allowing them to speak.

I often make repeat visits to the podium during Public Hearings -- because I have a right to do so and because I have more than 5 minutes of comment on the issue. Regarding the Library Budget, I wanted the Town to spend less next year, when the Library was in vastly smaller space, and I didn't want to see Comptroller Heslop dump $310,000 of DPW expense (relating to maintaining a non-existing building) into the Library budget because I see this is "sloppy" bookkeeping, especially at a time when there are other similar sloppy record keeping charges being made. And, "that is they way it was always done" no longer holds water.

On the other hand, also in the recent and lengthy Public Hearings on the Budget, four speakers chose to speak on the need for a study for the Tappan Zee Bridge. This item already existed in the Supervisor's Budget, went UNCHALLENGED by the Town Council and still resulted in 4 times 5 minutes+ of advocacy by concerned residents even though the issue was uncontested. Mr. Bass, to his credit, did attempt to curb this enthusiasm and issue promotion but was unsuccessful.

Thus, even though I found it painful and time-wasting to argue a special interest pleading with no monetary impact, I do recognize that this is one of the pitfalls of Democracy and living under it.

Given the choice between having meetings run late or restricting public comment, I shall always choose allowing residents to speak.
And, I do agree that it would be better to not schedule multiple Public Hearings on the same night.

As for the balance of the time and how it is spent at a regular Town Board Meeting, it is within the right of the Town Board to run the meeting as they see fit. However, it would also be possible to schedule events and topics and speakers (including those on the dais) so as to "run-out" the clock, approaching 11:00 or 11:15 and say, 'no time for Public Comment'. This would be unfortunate and the antithesis of maintaining open government.

One way to conclude business in a more timely manner would be to start the meetings promptly as scheduled and to limit the Town Board's individual explanations of their vote. In a unanimous vote, perhaps one member could speak for the group. The other sentiments are obvious from their vote.

However, whereas I would subscribe to this application for the Town Board, this attempt at shorthand is not to be taken as an endorsement for the same (by the Public) at a Public Hearing.

Finally, the Town Board is entirely free to run their Town Board Work Sessions without restriction or Public intervention. They can end at 4:00 PM or at 4:00 AM. That is solely up to them and need not be of concern to the Public. However, since it has been included in this general topic, I do take this opportunity to remind the Town Board that long overdue is the need to tape and re-broadcast these Work Sessions. As they occur during the normal working hours of residents, these meetings, open to the Public, are sparsely attended due to their scheduling. Whereas the scheduling (for the convenience of the Town Board and town employees) is understandable, what is not similarly understandable, or acceptable, is the absence of the mechanism to make these meetings available in an archived manner.
This certainly should be a goal for 2007 of the Supervisor.

Anonymous said...

Hal Samis is right, but...

Just because everybody has a right to speak at length doesn't mean that everybody has to speak at length. Perhaps the Supervisor can suggest that in order to move forward those who agree with what someone has said simply say that they agree, instead of saying it all over again. It can be coupled with a statement that by doing that everyone can get to express his view before it gets so late that people leave without having had the opportunity to speak at all.

I am not one of those who always criticizes the Supervisor, but it should be said that he contributes to the length of the meeting by constantly expresssing his opinions, his reasons for his opinions, his disagreements with the opinions of others, and so on, numerous times each meeting. All of these things lead the other Board members to chime in with why they disagree with the Supervisor. It goes on endlessly,leads nowhere, increases the nastiness of the meetings, and takes up much time.

If you want open government as the Supervisor defines it, which is everybody can speak, and you still want to end meetings at 11:15, then some restraint is necessary. It may be hard to restrain the public, but it shouldn't be hard for the Board, including the Supervisor, to restrain themselves. Between the Supervisor endlessly expressing his views and disagreements, and the Board endlessly praising each other for every little thing, hours are taken up. Cut those things out and meetings will and at 10 or 10:30 P.M.

Paul Feiner said...

I do not believe that we should limit any citizens right to speak. I think that we should limit the number of hearings held during each meeting. I also would suggest that if there is a hot topic on for a hearing or discussion that we should hold a special additional evening meeting (perhaps after a Tuesday evening work session)--and just schedule that item for the hearing. Until this year our work sessions always ended at a decent hour. Our Town Board meetings almost always ended before 11.

Anonymous said...

Paul, does nothing enter your head? If you do nothing to urge some restraint, or exercise some restraint yourself, don't be lecturing about long meetings. You are primarily responsible for the long meetings and everybody knows it. At the next meeting try to limit yourself to reading the agenda items, and don't make your long speeches, and let the public talk as much as they want, and see if the meeting doesn't end by 11:15. I bet it will. And it will be a better meeting also.

Anonymous said...

So you would have Mr. Feiner muzzle himself. I see no suggestion by you that the Town Council do the same. I've seen Mr. Sheehan wax eloquent for many minutes, for example, about the Verizon deal and other topics.
Let's face it. If a partisan for the Supervisor speaks, the Council will all have something to say. If a supporter of the Supervisor speaks, almost everyone on the Town Council has an opinion which they voice.
Frankly, I become an informed citizen by all of these exchanges.
Democracy takes time, unless their is rubber-stamping, which should raise all our suspicions.

Anonymous said...

You have just proven that the proposal to end meetings at 11:15 is silly. Not in Greenburgh, for sure, since everyone has to wax eloquent.

hal samis said...

Again. the Town Board WORK SESSIONS are the exclusive province of the Town Board. the Public has no right to speak while how long the individual members speak or how late their meeting is an internal matter for them alone to handle.

PUBLIC HEARINGS (often held within the framework of a TOWN BOARD MEETING) are governed by NYS Open Meetings Laws. Better scheduling of the entire night's agenda will
prevent late meetings.

And now we come to the TOWN BOARD MEETING which is where the problem really arises. First of all, only recently have late meetings become a problem; most of the meetings throughout the year end within recognized norms.

The new problem is that there is a growing rift between the Town Supervisor and the four members of the Town Council. Historically, all five of them often feel the need to register their individual comments to remind voters that their government (the speaker) cares. Even the moment of silence generates a round of "alas poor Yurick, I knew him well".

But since the mid-year point, a new factor has emerged. Mr. Sheehan, a purveyor of fine details, often bordering on minutia, brings to the meeting his professorial training AND his laptop. Lest residents forget, Mr. Sheehan was the architect of having the meeting room become a "hot" zone. Perhaps with it there should also be a Starbucks in the lobby (because it would bring extra revenue to the Town, like the Credit Union). Anyway, with the ability to read a prepared message off his screen, or even view a offstage assist from Gil Kaminer, Mr. Sheehan has quickly emerged to head the list of meeting minute usage.

Taking their cue from Mr. Sheehan, the other members of the Town Council feel compelled to register their voices, particularly Mr. Bass and Ms. Barnes who will be running for re-election next fall. And because they inherently know what makes good television, often as not, their comments are attacks upon the Supervisor or to defend their own malfeasance. Not that they are doing anything illegal or even wrong, it is just a fact that this new-found voice and the resultant speeches collectively eat up the clock.

Their attacks in turn generate a response from the Supervisor and since he is responding to four individuals, if not to the Public as well, his defense to their charges seems to dominate the evening but it really lasts not nearly as long as the totals of the other four. What is painful is that he is clearly not a good advocate for himself, particularly when under concerted attack and his poorly executed effort takes its toll on those present or watching at home.

But the effect of all this punching and bickering is to make the meetings, not only livelier, but also longer, resulting in for those who care about the late hour -- one big Excedrin headache.

And this brings us back to the first paragraph above. All of this jockeying for position and sparring in public does not have to be part of the Town Board Meeting. The Meeting is where "serious" business is supoosed to be conducted; it also the only place where the Public can address the Town Board on record. The pettiness, the attacking, the defending, the fake outrage and the coup de grace could all be handled on their own time, either by dueling emails or a voce at their Work Session.

If time is the essence of the problem, then the solution is readily apparent and easily attainable.

Those seated on the Dais should use their time at Town Meetings, in view of residents, to honor individuals, to make announcements, to vote on matters and to answer the questions of the Public.
Point, Game, Set and Match. 'nuff said!

Anonymous said...

As I said before, Hal Samis is right.

It is the bickering, and what Hal Samis rightly describes as political posturing, that takes up the time. All five are at fault, and if Samis is right that the Town Council runs out the clock more than the Supervisor (I had thought that it was the other way around) then what the hell does it matter who is worse. This posturing, politicking, undermining, and so on, not only makes the meetings interminable but also creates disrespect for the entire Town Board and the democratic process itself.

But don't expect THIS Town Board to change. We need a whole new Town Board.

Anonymous said...

The rules change should be that grandstanding for grandstanding's sake should be prohibited.

Anonymous said...

"But don't expect THIS Town Board to change. We need a whole new Town Board", said a previous message. Sad, but maybe true.

Anonymous said...

I hope that the Town Board will adopt this reform in January. I want decisions to be made by people who aren't falling asleep.

Anonymous said...

Any meeting that lasts more than an hour is wasting time. 11:15 p.m. is too late for anyone to try to accomplish any meaningful work. Speakers should be limited to no more that 3 minutes to make their point and sit down!!

hal samis said...

Now let me see if I understand this,
the Town Board has just concluded the 2007 Budget vote at a special meeting which occurred at a time when many members of the Public were still at their offices.

The reason for this meeting was that the budget had to be adopted by December 20. The Town Attorney and Mr. Sheehan agreed that Towns, unlike the State, do not have the power to "stop the clock".

So fresh from this experience, there is "support" for the idea that in all other areas where there is not already pressure to decide issues under a deadline, the Town Board should consider imposing their own deadlines, in this case an hour for meetings to end.

Should there be pressing business at hand at a "late" hour, the meeting would be adjourned to another date so that the Town Board would not be guilty of breaking their own rule: Meetings shall end by....

What a clever idea!

Because it is getting late and I don't want to delay anyone, let me just mention the beginning of the old joke. A guy who owns a fish store is putting up a new sign, "Fresh Fish For Sale". A friend walks over and says...

If you need the explanation, write.