Editorial: Don Monty— Call the Question
Now that Carbondale mayor Joel Fritzler has resigned to take a job at Northern Arizona University, his successor, Don Monty can hit the reset button.
Monty should start by making sure council meetings move at a brisker pace.
Serving democracy definitely requires public discussion, but few people have the endurance for five-hour meetings.
It’s one thing to make sure that public meetings help inform citizens about issues that matter to them. Unfortunately, too often the council wades deep into minutiae about which the public cares little. Rather than engaging and educating the public, the council turns off constituents. People with healthy interests in local government do not come out to participate in marathon council sessions, and those watching at home will switch the channel to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., then The Daily Show, then the Colbert Report, and eventually one of the late, late shows. And after that, if a meeting’s still in progress, it’s gone on too long.
Furthermore, the Illinois Municipal League once advised elected officials that when meetings stretch past midnight, people make decisions not because they’re in the public’s best interest, but so they can get home and go to bed.
The inefficient, disorganized, rudderless effect of endless discussions
doesn’t, and shouldn’t, inspire confidence in Carbondale or its government.
Monty’s role as mayor requires him to plan ahead. The weekend before a meeting, he needs to poll council members to ensure they understand the issues about which they’re going to vote. If they do not, Monty must make certain that city staff clear up any ambiguities and misunderstandings before he gavels the meeting to order. Then his role as council chairman requires Monty to manage discussions, making sure that remaining questions receive answers and major points are covered— in appropriate but not excruciating detail— before votes take place in an expeditious manner.
Monty also needs to dissuade the council from pulling items from the consent agenda— routine items on which the council is supposed to vote without discussion— for separate discussions and rollcall votes. Well-meaning councilpeople sometimes like to pull these items to draw attention to them— housing-loan programs, for example, often receive such treatment. This, theoretically, is a laudable goal, but it extends already lengthy meetings, and the items almost always pass by unanimous votes.
If councilpeople plan to vote yes for consent items, Monty must urge them to efficiently vote on them as part of the consent agenda, pass them, then use the Council Comments portion of the meeting to briefly highlight or explain them. This will serve the educational purpose of meetings without overly prolonging them with extra procedural loops.
Monty further needs to discourage councilpeople from wasting the public's time by asking stupid questions during meetings. In reading their packets, yes, councilpeople sometimes miss things and questions can come up during a discussion that reading an agenda item might not inspire, things to which nobody, including this writer, is immune.
But if the answer to a question is clearly on the cover page of the agenda item— if it’s on page one— then it’s a stupid question, and a clear indication that the inquiring councilperson didn’t bother to read it.
In essence, resolutions and ordinances are contracts that the council is signing on behalf of the community. If councilpeople aren’t carefully reading these contracts— if they aren’t even reading the first page— their laziness and ignorance can place the city at considerable legal and financial risk. Monty needs to make sure that councilpeople educate themselves, properly prepare for meetings, and— again— ensure that city staff addresses any remaining questions before meetings take place. This will prevent individual councilpeople from looking clueless and make the council as a whole better organized.
Critics are certain to charge that this writer is promoting secrecy instead of open government and efficiency at the expense of due process. The over/under on the arrival of that accusation is about five days.
But the truth is, Robert's Rules of Order, under which the mayor conducts council meetings, gives all viewpoints on the council the right to be heard, while state law provides for public input. On the other hand, Robert's Rules also charges chairpeople (like Carbondale’s mayor) with the responsibility to make sure the wheels of democracy drive rather than stall out or continually spin into deep rhetorical or parliamentary ditches. To successfully straddle the often competing interests of debate and action, Monty must learn and trust Robert's Rules. Then he needs to inspire the council and gain the confidence of its members so they, and the public, will accept his leadership. At that point, when Monty steps in to move a discussion along or bring it to a conclusion, he will generally find acceptance of his verdict that the council, city staff, and the public provided and received enough input to render an informed decision.