Monday, December 26, 2011

Setting the Agenda

Last week, I asked a whole bunch of nosy questions about how agendas for city council meetings are set by the City of Richardson. Bill McCalpin of Rumorcheck.org did his best to answer my questions. He doesn't work for the city; he isn't involved in setting agendas himself; he does have years of experience observing what happens around city hall. I can't say for sure he's right or wrong (if I could, I wouldn't have needed to ask my questions in the first place). But his answers sound plausible.

After the jump, my own understanding of how the process probably works.



McCalpin says there is "a large calendar that the city manager's office maintains on items that must be discussed and/or decided on throughout the course of the year." I can imagine a large, wall-sized paper calendar filled with Post-it Notes. But we're in the 21st century now, so I hope that calendar has moved to an electronic version, accessible to the city manager's office, all city staff and council members. Legally, it's probably accessible to the public, too, through an Open Records Act request. But why make the public ask? Why isn't this working calendar online? Sure, it's a working calendar, subject to change. But by making it accessible to the public, the public can make informed suggestions for changes, as it should be.

McCalpin says that this calendar generates most of the items on the weekly meeting agendas. Other items come up as a result of filings by the public, such as zoning change requests. Still other items are added as a result of the city council's own yearly exercise of identifying a list of near-term action items. Finally, McCalpin suggests that if an individual council member feels strongly about an issue, even if he's all by himself, his wish to add this to the agenda is accommodated by the city manager's office, even if the idea is eventually rejected by the full council. All of these items ought to be included in that "large calendar" that should then be made available online to the public.

McCalpin suggests that the Mayor has final approval of the agenda. This might seem natural, but if it's done this way in Richardson, it's only an informal practice. The mayor is just one of seven members of the city council. If the other six defer to the mayor in this regard, it's done out of trust, confidence, respect. It's not a power delegated to the mayor by the city charter.

I can imagine another system where the city staff draws up a proposed agenda for the next meeting and presents it at the end of each council meeting. The council as a whole would then review, revise and approve the next agenda. Besides involving the whole council in setting the council's own agenda, this has the side benefit of giving the public a full week's notice of the next agenda, not the minimum 72 hours required by state law. I'm full of good ideas for continuous improvement. ;-)

So far, so good. It's all a very friendly system. The council is (mostly) of like mind. They have confidence in the city manager and city staff. The other six council members have confidence in the mayor. As long as the annual calendar and weekly meeting agendas cover the goals of the council, the council has little need to get involved in drawing up each week's agenda. As far as McCalpin knows, none of this process is written down. That's probably fine, as long as the camaraderie persists. But if the council ever loses confidence in the city manager, or two or three council members lose confidence in the mayor (and certainly if a majority of four do) then the current comfortable system will be strained.

On the other hand, with the city council members all being elected at large, with the mayor being chosen by the council itself, and with the city manager being hired (and fired) by the council, Richardson city government is designed to avoid divisions and conflicts. Which is probably why the current comfortable system has worked as well as it has for as long as it has.

Thanks, Bill, for your expansive answers to my questions.

8 comments:

glbeach said...

While I can understand how having an electronic calendar 'accessible to the public' so 'the public can make informed suggestions for changes', having been a precinct chairman long ago I can point out a few shortcomings.

As a precinct chairman, the tasks I dealt with were minuscule compared to the responsibilities of city council members. And yet, numerous were the times partisans would call at all hours, but most generally quite late at night or early in the morning to . . . well generally to vent their spleen. One can only imagine - given the rancour and distrust voiced among some city residents - the number of calls to council members with ideas and suggestions that might be generated.

Perhaps the city of Richardson should take a page from the city of London and install a 'Speakers Corner' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speakers%27_Corner) where everyone has a chance to have their say.

Nathan Morgan said...

glbeach,
The connection between the calendar and speaker's corner strikes me as placation, not service. People who wish to serve the public have become self-absorbed in thinking they can dictate the terms of service to the public they are suppose to be serving.

Some very wise men thought through the idea of managing democracy long before our little town Council (and other governing bodies) decided to bastardize the process. If our management and elected officials didn't try to re-invent the wheel to suit their purpose, this city would be operating under a proven method of order. Might I suggest Robert's Rules of Order?

For all the belly-aching about the toil that goes into public service, you'd think people seek out these positions for reasons other than public service.

You might be on to something here. It would seem that people take on a new personality when they tie into the luxuries of public office. They seem to want to complain about the work to be done while enjoying/exploiting the trappings of the office.

Mark,
Thanks for the recognition regarding what lessons I have learned from my years of observing the operations at city hall. It is, after all, much of what I described that troubles you about the agenda process.

There is an agenda calendar. Management refers to it frequently. It is public information. But, given the foot-dragging method of responding to such a request, don't expect to see a copy in less than the 10-day response grace period.

Typically, the public is denied access to the most current information through the exploitation of the grace period intended to allow for time to resurrect and deliver information. In the case of the agenda calendar, it should be (and could be easily) posted on the Internet along with countless other such items. I have no doubt that it is in digital form on the computer already. There is nothing keeping it from being attached to an immediate email response, except, of course, the will to do so.

As for citizens requests, it is only proper to respect each in equal manner in a proper open meeting forum. There could be a mechanism much akin to the current Consent Agenda, wherein each citizen request is presented in a group for approval to be added to a future agenda.

Or, a method by which the current agenda calendar is accessible and citizens can submit their request for consideration in a future public open meeting.

Either way, each citizen request for an agenda item should not fall on the deaf ears of one person, such as a Council member or public employee.

Neither should these requests be dismissed in private and concealed from the general public.

Too much public business and too many good ideas and citizen concerns are not receiving proper consideration in public meetings of the Richardson governing body.

mccalpin said...

[NM]"As for citizens requests, it is only proper to respect each in equal manner in a proper open meeting forum. There could be a mechanism much akin to the current Consent Agenda, wherein each citizen request is presented in a group for approval to be added to a future agenda.

[NM]Or, a method by which the current agenda calendar is accessible and citizens can submit their request for consideration in a future public open meeting.

[NM]Either way, each citizen request for an agenda item should not fall on the deaf ears of one person, such as a Council member or public employee. "

Whether Mr. Morgan likes it or not, the Texas Open Meetings Handbook states this explicitly:

"VIII. Open Sessions
...
C. Rights of the Public
...
The Act does not entitle the public to choose the items to be discussed or to speak about items on the agenda." [https://www.oag.state.tx.us/AG_Publications/pdfs/openmeeting_hb.pdf]

Mr. Morgan clearly believes that he should have the right to add items to the Council agenda. However, two things frustrate him:
1. It is a requirement of City government that there be some method of winnowing down the number of possible agenda items - if a resident could force ANY item to be discussed even if no other residents were interested, the Council's agenda would be swamped and nothing at all productive would be done.
2. The principle of representative government dictates that it is the REPRESENTATIVES of the people who make the agendas and the ultimate decisions. No where does the law give Mr. Morgan the right to either add things unilaterally to the agenda nor to make the decision on those items. He could do so, of course, if he ran for Council and was elected, but he has never chosen to do that.

In short, Mr. Morgan's problems are not with the Richardson City Council but with the Texas Legislature. You think that the Texas Open Meetings Act ought to be worded differently? Fine, but stop falsely accusing Council members of violating the Act, when they are following the Act to the letter. Complain to the Legislature and the courts...they're the ones who can fix it...and since the Legislature is in Austin and you are in San Antonio just down the road, stop bothering the decent people in Richardson and go straight to the source of your "problem".

Mr. Morgan also fails to note that since Richardson residents (of which he is not one) vote for all seven places, every Richardson resident has 7 Council members to go to, not one.

Bill

Also refer to John Hill Opinion H-188 at https://www.oag.state.tx.us/opinions/opinions/45hill/op/1973/pdf/jh0188.pdf
Yes, this is the same John Hill that Mr. Morgan mistakenly identified as "liberal" and as part of the Sharpstown corruption scandal...

Nathan Morgan said...

Willy,

Just because the law says the public servants are entitled to set the agenda, that does not mean they don't have to listen to the citizens they serve in setting the agenda. That does not mean the good ones cannot do the right thing and adhere to the oath of office they freely took.

There is nothing saying public servants cannot, should not, or would otherwise be in violation of the law if they actually represented the will of the citizens they were elected and hired to serve. Imagine that.

Why do you continue to argue on the side of government control instead of the citizens who empower it? Why are you so against the people being involved with public business? What are you trying to hide? What funny business are you protecting? What corruption you are promoting.

mccalpin said...

Nathan, who gave you the right to unilaterally determine what the oath of office means? You make up your own interpretaiton of the law and are angry when the rest of the State (not just the voters, but public officials, the State Legislature, the Attorneys General, and the courts) don't agree with you.

As for hiding something or promoting corruption or whatever complete nonsense you are spouting, everyone reading this will note that not once did I say anything about arguing on the side of government control or being against the people being involved in public business or any of the other nonsense. You made that up, and everyone can see it.

This is the only way you win an argument - put words in the other person's mouth and then criticize them...but everyone here - even grade schoolers - can see through your flimsy rhetorical devices.

Really, does this sort of sophistry win any arguments in San Antonio, your home for more than a year? It sure doesn't work in Richardson.

Bill

Nathan Morgan said...

Willy,

There you go again. Your dishonesty in representing the circumstance is astounding. I've said it more than once, your soul is lost, my friend. If this is the best you can do, you should consider another career path. You are on the wrong side of this issue and attacking me will not change that.

Your skill at putting words in the mouths of others then criticising them is far more advanced. This lesson you learned well in political science correspondence school.

Now, you have overplayed your hand. After seeing this, nobody takes you seriously. You have lost any credibility you might have started with.

It is obvious this frustrates you to no end. You might want to waddle back into your cubicle and shut your mouth for a while. The oral diarrhoea is nauseating.

mccalpin said...

On November 11, 2011, Nathan Morgan claimed on his website that (1) 5 of the 7 Richardson Council members lived on the west side of Central Expressway, and (2) that the Richardson Coalition spent an "unprecedented" amount of money on the campaign.

Both statements are false.

Please see http://www.rumorcheck.org/5of7.html for the proof...

Bill

Nathan Morgan said...

Willy,

Thanks for the laughs.