City Council considers changes to public meetings

Thursday, June 12, 2008 | 7:39 p.m. CDT; updated 12:20 a.m. CST, Wednesday, November 26, 2008

COLUMBIA — The City Council chambers stay lit late into the night two Mondays a month as council members make decisions based on comments from the public, members of city staff and each other.

Council meetings are all but famous for their drawn-out proceedings, but the council is looking to change that. Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser submitted a proposal that would split up the City Council agenda across three meetings per month instead of the two that are currently held. Nauser also suggested that public hearings on controversial topics be addressed individually at separate meetings.

She said the reforms would likely be implemented in “bits and pieces,” rather than in one formal change. For example, council members might begin to submit their comments for the consent agenda, rather than saving them until the end of the meeting.

“This is kind of a way to let our constituents know that we have asked for a formal action in their area of concern,” Nauser said. “People will be able to read in the newspaper what’s being asked, so hopefully that will cut down on time at the end of the meeting.”

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said it wasn’t just inconvenient that meetings tend to last so long. “When meetings go so late, we really cut people out of the opportunity to participate,” he said. “No one, unless they’re incredibly committed, wants to stick around until midnight to make a comment.”

There is some discussion of changing the process by which land use issues in particular are heard. Currently, the Planning and Zoning Commission holds public hearings on certain items, such as those involving re-zoning. Then the commission makes a recommendation to the City Council, and the council holds another public hearing at its meeting.

At a work session on April 23, the council agreed to request a report from city staff about hearing processes in other communities and an ordinance from the commission that “defines rules for recommendations from P&Z to go onto the consent agenda,” according to the minutes from that session. The council suggested that the ordinance be completed by June or July 1.

The commission received the requests but has not drafted an ordinance or discussed the recommendations. Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Jeff Barrow called the proposed deadlines “aggressive,” considering the commission’s long list of projects for the upcoming fiscal year. Still, Barrow said he would likely support such ordinances. “I think most of the commissioners feel like the public notice and the meetings and the way they are run are cumbersome and sometimes repetitive,” he said.

Wade, who facilitated the work group that initially recommended the changes in 2006, said he expects that some progress will be made on the ordinances by September.

If the ordinance comes to fruition, it would allow the council to put some planning and zoning items on the consent agenda instead of advertising public hearings for them. At council meetings, the city clerk reads consent agenda items into the record by number, and the council votes on them.

Wade said the idea is to streamline the process for recommendations that take a lot of work but see little opposition.

“There is no intention to reduce the public’s ability to participate,” he said. “There will be very clear rules on how an item can be moved from the consent agenda if there is any interest in public comment.”

According to the city charter, the council must oblige any request that an item be moved from the consent agenda.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to escape that (lengthy public hearings on zoning), because people have the right to talk to the council before the council adopts an ordinance,” said city attorney Fred Boeckmann.

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