Better City Council Meetings #1: Eliminate the presentations!

This is the first in a series of changes to our City Council Meetings I’d like to see. This particular change has to do with managing the length of meetings, which was especially problematic at the August 6th ‘Budget Retreat’ (Video). And before we dive in, I don’t want to be a tease, but I want to emphasise that there is a ‘big picture’ we’ll get to talking about after a few articles. See all the issues I will raise are features and not ‘bugs’. The current majority have, over time, gradually moulded the system to work the way it does now very intentionally. And they’ve done so because they believe it is the system that is in the best interest of the City.  So none of the issues I will raise are in any way accidental or unintended.

How it currently works

Currently Councilmembers  get the Agenda Packet the Friday before the Council Meeting. But that initial version of the Packet is pretty skinny. It contains the items to be discussed, but it does not contain any of the Staff presentations (those slide decks you see at most meetings.) Those are often finalised only minutes before the meeting. So we see all those slide presentations cold–just as you do if you attend. (The day after the meeting, the City Clerk attaches the slides to the Agenda.)

Councilmembers are instructed to read the Packet over the weekend and present questions about Agenda Items to the City Manager by the following Monday so that he and his Staff have time to research and reply before the Thursday meeting. But do you see the problem? Since we don’t see the presentations when we get that initial Packet, we frequently don’t have any details on the issue being discussed. So we can’t possibly formulate in-depth questions (you don’t know what you don’t know, right?)

Bad freshman lecture

Look, most of us have been in these kinds of meetings before. A guy I worked with years ago brilliantly labeled them ‘bad freshman lecture’. You know: those college classes which were nothing more than the professor going page by through the contents of the textbook–the stuff you were already supposed to have read before class.  But no one complained, right? The prof was just doing his job, and besides, it saved students having to actually prepare. 😀

Victory laps

know how catty this will sound unless you’ve attended as many of these meetings as I have. Buuuuuut, just between us girls? A certain amount of these presentations are essentially press releases and victory laps. I’ve been to many City Council Meetings where a half hour presentation wasn’t even about new information or a decision to be made. Rather it was simply to show off a particular success story about which the Council had already been informed.

Now look, I enjoy taking the occasional victory lap as much as the next guy.  But certain meetings (like, oh I dunno, a Budget Meeting) are already packed to the rafters with important stuff. And in my view, such meetings should be all business. Because if you include all that P.R. stuff, you’re basically making it impossible to get the real work done in the allotted time.

It’s my meeting; mine, Mine, MINE!

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: City Council Meetings are public meetings, but that does not mean what most of you think it means. They are for us (the City Council) not you. City Council meetings are not meant to inform the public. They’re meant for us to make decisions. You’re allowed in so that you can watch to make sure that business is being conducted on the up and up and to provide public comment. But we are not there to educate or sell the public! If the City wants to do any promotional jazz (which I fully support!) they have far better outlets than a City Council Meeting to reach the entire population.

And what I’m getting at is that if we cut out all the ‘fluff’ we’d have all the time in the world for proper discussion and debate.  In fact, we’d save so much time, we’d still have plenty of spare time left over for the occasional Middle School Science Presentation,  Proclaiming Strawberry Awareness Month and Staff Appreciation Day. 🙂

Meanwhile, back in college…

Now let’s go back to college. After yer first year, you stop screwing around (OK, I stopped screwing around) and holy schnike! you’re given the reading ahead of time. What a concept! Which means that the actual ‘lecture’ is, wait for it I know it will come as a shocker: just for asking questions! Are them college boys smart or what?

And that is how City Council Meetings should be run. The Council should be given the slide deck a few days ahead along with the Packet, and expected to actually learn the material before class (er ‘meeting’. 😀 )  Then each presenter’s job would mainly be to field questions.

How it should work (the mechanics)

Staff should be directed to prepare their presentations for inclusion when the Agenda Packet is released on Friday. That would give Councilmembers the weekend to really digest what is to be decided. Then, when Staff come in on Monday they’re not rushing to complete their presentations. They can focus on replying to Councilmember questions. (Although I suspect that just having the presentations available for Councilmembers would reduce the number of emailed questions.)

Since all parties know what will be discussed, there’s no ‘lecturing’ involved. The slide deck is only there to aid in the discussion. My guess is that this would cut down on meeting length by 50%. It would also dramatically improve the discussion, since 100% of the meeting time would go to useful debate. (By the way: Almost all Staff I’ve talked to over the years really do not revel in doing those presentations. My guess is that they would much prefer not to have to do them.)

I’d like to take credit…

Did I invent this? Of course not. I stole it from other governments–including our State House. That’s how they do it. When you show up to any hearing on a bill, electeds have already received all the supporting materials. A Staffer introduces the bill with a three minute summary and then the hearing is simply interviewing witnesses, pounding them with detailed questions and then voting. It’s the only way to get through the volume of material they need to cover in their very short sessions.

Why it is like it is…

A big part of the current system is human nature. The fluff is fun. Everyone likes to show off the successes. Everyone likes to show their appreciation. And most of us like to be thanked for our hard work. Frankly, all of this is a big part of why a lot of people run for City Council. Which is fine.

The flip side is that the real business of the Council is often unpleasant. All that debating, making unpopular decisions… who wants to focus on that, right? 😀

And also…

We’re the only City in the area that limits Council speeches to four minutes; or limits each Councilmember to speaking twice on any issue. We do everything we can to reduce the amount of time that Councilmembers can inquire or debate any issue. We intentionally leave the lion’s share of meeting time for all those presentations.

Study, study, study! Or bonk, bonk, bad kid.

(Never miss a chance for a Trek meme, right?)

Keeping it short…

Now why do we do all this if it’s so inefficient? Ironically, in order to keep the meetings as short as possible. It is the Mayor’s stated goal to make it less onerous for people to join the Council. In other words, the current majority feels very strongly that most of us have very busy lives and we simply don’t have the time to do all that jazz I propose. We have jobs and kids and lives for goodness sake! We need to keep meetings as short as possible. And you simply cannot expect Councilmembers to study, Study, STUDY or bonk, bonk, bad kid!

So in one sentence, we front load our meetings with lectures and fluff and then allocate whatever time is left over for the actual business of discussion, debate and decision making.

Now here’s the really fun part…

This system also means that the greater the number of important items there are on the Agenda, the less time there will be for the discussion, debate and decision making–because all the important stuff requires slides and lecturing. So: the more items there are to be decided, the less time there will be left over to do the actual decidering. Get it? The more time Council spends listening, the less time there is for talking. And the natural conclusion of that equation is a four hour Budget Meeting which is 100% slides and 0% Councilmember activity.

To those whom much is given…

(Or whatever Peter Parker says. I do Trek, not comics… 😀 )

The only obvious objection to making the change I’ve discussed is that it does ask more of Councilmembers. It means that it is challenging for potential Councilmembers who are raising two year olds or working four twelves or whatever. There’s a reason the job tends to be a better fit for people who sit around all day (like moi) or those with flexible schedules.

But I dunno what to tell ya. This is no joke. The Municipal Corporation of Des Moines, Washington has  a $100 million annual budget. We’re not some small beach town any more and haven’t been for thirty years. We’re actually one of the larger and more complex cities in the entire State Of Washington.

I believe that you cannot run this size organization and successfully plan for our future without Councilmembers who have the time, commitment and skills to do a proper job. When you look at other governments: State, Federal, etc. one big problem they all have is that the electeds are literally not there all that much (in those cases because they’re constantly fund raising.) But regardless of the reason, it takes a certain amount of time to actually do the job and that lack of time is killing our ability to solve problems at every level of government.

To sum it up: We are a complex corporation. We need to structure our meetings a lot better and we need to have Councilmembers who are willing and able to put in the necessary time to do the job. You can reduce the hours you spend doing the job. But you can’t actually reduce the job that needs doing.

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