Thursday, March 31, 2011

Last week's council meetings: A drama in 2 acts

ANALYSIS By Dick Yarmy
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Telecommunications

The March 21 Midway City Council meetings unfolded like a drama in two acts. Act 1 was an example of city government at its best. Act 2 showed the strain and tension of two factions reaching to understand each other.

Act 1: More than a dozen citizens, including downtown merchants, joined council members and Mayor Tom Bozarth as Joe Grider of HMB Professional Engineers (at right in photo below) brought the plans for the downtown railroad improvements and the Midway streetscape to life at a special outdoor meeting.

Grider, looking like the Pied Piper, led the contingent along points he had pre-marked on the cement showing each construction phase planned by the city and R.J. Corman Railroad Group. His crisp narration was occasionally interrupted by questions from merchants, interested citizens and council members. (Photo by Dick Yarmy)

Although the basic plan has been public for some time, Bozarth called the special meeting and walkthrough to highlight the latest changes to the project, such as scrapping the original plan to demolish two walls on the north end of East Main Street.

Public notice of the special meeting was posted and the mayor telephoned merchants, potentially affected by the changes, to avoid possible misunderstandings.

Grider detailed the nine areas where existing walls, curbs and sidewalks would be removed, and described the six construction tasks involving walls and columns. Changes in parking spot dimensions, which could affect storefront businesses, were covered in detail. Accessibility to the area will be improved with the addition of sidewalk ramps allowing wheeled access to the street.

The streetscape diagram is available as JPEG photo file here.

Grider explained the project scheduling in relative terms. The city can begin its construction only after Corman has completed its work, and Corman’s schedule has yet to be announced.

As different construction tasks were detailed, questions came from the crowd, such as: “Who’s paying for that?” Grider said the city will spend $53,000 on streetscape while Corman spends $700,000 on railway improvements.

The project plan was clearly explained, the interested parties were informed and the city government achieved its goal of keeping interested parties up to date.

The curtain dropped on Act 1.

Act 2, the regular council meeting, added some drama. After routine business, the council began a lengthy debate fueled by new council members’ concerns about communication, access to information and citizens’ involvement in government.

Different understandings between the three new members and holdovers (the three other members and Bozarth) surfaced when new member Joy Arnold discussed a proposed meeting designed to share the council’s goals with the public and solicit additional goals.

Holdover member Doris Leigh questioned the need for the meeting, citing the council’s retreat at the Holly Hill Inn Feb. 12, when members and Bozarth met with a facilitator to establish goals for 2011.

“We already decided our goals at the Holly Hill meeting,” said Leigh, who suggested the council accomplish those goals before taking on new ones.

Arnold replied, “I’m not sure the public is aware of our goals.”

“We represent them,” Leigh responded. “They tell us what to do.”

As the discussion continued, the lines of communication appeared to connect, and all members agreed to the purpose, content, format, location and time of the meeting. It will be held at 6:30 p.m. May 2 at Midway Baptist Church.

But the tension built again, as Council Member Dan Roller introduced a memo with nine suggestions for holding more productive council meetings. Again, the new members and holdovers took opposite positions, and the main point of disagreement was access to information.

Roller asked for more detail to be included in the packet sent to council members to prepare them for council meetings. He also called for a document to track pending projects and proposals that have been acted on in the past year.

Bozarth, left, said any information needed would be provided when requested by a council member. “If you want something specific, just ask,” he said. (Photo, from earlier meeting, by Dick Yarmy)

Roller said information pertaining to the council’s business is “guarded” rather than open. “It’s not our business, it’s the public’s business,” he said. “Most of the suggestions we’re making are for having more productive meetings going forward.”

Roller suggested the packet information should also include the individual committee reports and scheduled meetings. When Bozarth said he saw no need to include detailed schedules and actions of the committees in the packets, Roller asked, “You’re opposed to informing the public?”

Council Member Aaron Hamilton said, “It’s all open. They can come to a committee meeting, if they want to; they don’t have to wait for a report. We send a notice out, and anybody can attend –– anybody.” By law, council committee meetings are public.

New Council Member Becky Moore, who preceded Bozarth as mayor, said a more complete and detailed agenda would serve to inform and engage more citizens, because the agenda is published on the city’s website.

Council Member Sharon Turner expressed support for the current agenda content: “It’s been the same the last four years as it was the two years before that,” she said. “You put on there what you know –– when you know it.” Bozarth was mayor the last four years.

The differing points of view between the new members and holdovers continued during a discussion about providing the news media with the council packets in advance of the meeting.

Bozarth said he saw no need for that, saying that if journalists want something, they can ask. He said the city is following the state open-records law.

Phil Moloney, the city attorney, left, said the city uses the three-day delay the law allows for a response to minimize costs and conserve city clerks’ time. (Photo, from earlier meeting, by Dick Yarmy)

Moore suggested that the reporters present be asked if they needed the packet to do their jobs. Bozarth asked this reporter’s opinion, specifically on receiving an advance copy of the complete packet.

“I would ask for what I needed,” I replied. “We’re not bashful.”

The discussions included other topics, such as operation of the council’s email system, including date stamping; the ability of city clerks to be informed of council decisions to answer citizens’ inquiries; and the possibility of developing a more comprehensive city calendar that would include holidays, city events and anything requiring a permit.

After the meeting, this reporter asked Roller for a copy of the memo he read during the meeting. He suggested I fill out an open-records request, or see the mayor. Bozarth, hearing the conversation, offered to email me one. Roller then handed me his copy, ending Act 2.

In phone interviews the next day and the day after, two council members opined on the meeting.

Moore said part of the problem is the appearance of secrecy: “We’re doing public business in a public place; having people wait for information makes you suspicious.”

Asked what changes she’d like to see, she said, “An elected official should be able to go into City Hall and get what they need immediately. I feel the information is guarded. We should review the current policy.” She added, “The new council members want to know what’s going on because people ask us.”

Turner said their constituents are well informed.

“I can’t get in or out of the grocery store without someone saying ‘What’s going on?’ . . . If you can’t answer to their satisfaction, you can be sure they’ll show up at a council meeting,” she said, adding that communication has improved.

“I’ve worked under both mayors, and I don’t know why some folks think it’s different now. It’s been more open in the last four years than in the previous six.” Moore was mayor for about six years.

“Everything I’ve wanted to know –– when I’ve asked, I’ve been provided with,” Turner said. “Everyone is doing what they can do –– we’re not in it for the money, we’re in it for the love of Midway.”

On that point, Moore agreed. “The information will come, now that we’re asking for it,” she said.

1 comment:

Council Member Dan Roller said...

The report states,"After the meeting, this reporter asked Roller for a copy of the memo he read during the meeting. He suggested I fill out an open-records request, or see the mayor. Bozarth, hearing the conversation, offered to email me one. Roller then handed me his copy", When asked for the memo, I advised the reporter the memo was in the meeting packet, and referred him to the mayor. When the mayor indicated he didn't have one to provide, I then handed my copy to the mayor, not the reporter and the mayor provided my copy to the reporter. The memo requested a copy of the packet be provided to the reporters. The reporter failed to report that he advised in the open meeting that he did not need a copy of the packet. Apparently he did need a packet.