Asheville City Council members don't have a problem listening -- they just don't want to do it all night long.
And Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick would appreciate fellow Council members confronting her directly when they object to the way she runs meetings. "If you've got a problem, speak to me about it," she declared during Council's Aug. 18 work session, looking in Council member Tommy Sellers' direction.
At issue was how Council members and Sitnick had handled the pro-marijuana advocates who addressed Council members the week before. Despite objections from Council member Chuck Cloninger, Sitnick let nearly a dozen of them speak, for nearly an hour, on Aug. 11.
Sellers, who abruptly walked out of that meeting, later told an Asheville Citizen-Times reporter that the issue "was the most idiotic, asinine, irresponsible ... subject that has ever come up. ... It would not have come up in the last administration. You can read between the lines if you wish, but I don't know why it came before us."
During the work session, Sitnick admonished Sellers, saying, "Let's discuss [differences] professionally, rather than airing [them] in the local media." With no response from Sellers, she went on to defend her actions the previous week, paraphrasing the city charter as she asserted, "Whether we liked what they were saying or not ... we have an obligation to listen to the citizens of our community."
In keeping with current city policy, Sitnick explained, she had allowed the marijuana advocates time to speak during the "other business" segment of the Aug. 11 formal session. "It was [an] orderly meeting -- [and] not a frequent circumstance," said Sitnick, who gave the group's spokesman 10 minutes and members three minutes each to have their say.
But, Sitnick conceded, "I have no problem with [setting] time limits. We'd be brain-dead if we went on forever."
On that particular day, Council members had started the session with board-and-commission interviews at 1:40 p.m. The pro-marijuana discussion took them past 8 p.m.
What's more, Cloninger had argued, it was an issue over which Council had no authority. So on Aug. 18, he proposed limiting future speakers -- on any subject addressed during "other business" -- to either 10 minutes for one spokesperson, or three minutes each for three speakers. "I'm not interested in limiting the topics, but the number of speakers," he told Council members, asking them to support his proposed rule change. Cloninger argued that the new rule would give citizens a chance to voice their opinions -- and Council an opportunity to determine whether the issue warranted further discussion or action.
Sellers supported the idea.
But Council member O.T. Tomes voiced concern that the limit might further discourage "those who feel disenfranchised" from speaking to Council. He asked that more speakers be allowed.
Council member Barbara Field, who noted that Sitnick had handled the Aug. 11 meeting very well, also backed Cloninger's proposal. "I don't have any problem listening," said Field. "Yes, the meeting took up [our] time, [and] some didn't want to deal with it," she added. But the marijuana advocates were articulate and polite -- even if some of them may have dressed funny, she said. "I probably used to, too," she joked. But it would be a good idea to set a rule that people could follow in the future, she agreed.
Council member Earl Cobb admitted that he had been caught off guard by the pro-marijuana speakers. But Council members, he noted, have heard out an almost unlimited number of speakers in connection with other, regular-agenda issues. "Give them their day in court," he urged.
"We're all on the same wavelength," Cloninger observed. Setting time limits for "other business" speakers will let those waiting for a turn at the lectern know it won't be long before they, too, get their chance, he added.
At that, Sitnick joked that -- apart from a few lengthy meetings about the cable franchise, the golf-course-purchase scheme, and a few more hot topics -- "Meetings have been pretty consistent."
Cloninger attempted to get his proposal approved immediately, but Sitinick insisted that Council first let the city attorney put it in writing, for members to review at a subsequent formal session. Council members consented to her suggestion.