Democracy takes time

Admit it: You’ve heard the rumors that Asheville City Council meetings are longer than they used to be.

Well, it’s true — and has been for years, since long before Mayor Leni Sitnick took office last December. In the ’70s and ’80s, meetings rarely ran more than two hours. In fact, many were routine affairs that lasted mere minutes. But since January 1994, the length of the average Council meeting has increased to three hours, according to a Mountain Xpress review of official Council minutes.

In the past four years, the two longest meetings lasted more than seven hours each: Aug. 6, 1996 (seven hours, 15 minutes for the initial work session on the Unified Development Ordinance) and June 6, 1995 (seven hours, two minutes to discuss how much public comment Council should allow). The UDO was a formidable meeting-stretcher: The average UDO-related Council session was four-and-a-half hours long.

Compare that to the shortest meetings — a nine-minute special session called by then-Mayor Russ Martin to enact an agreement limiting logging and development on the city’s North Fork Reservoir property (June 28,1996), and a 28-minute quickie conducted by Sitnick this past Sept. 8.

“We’ve had a couple of long ones, haven’t we?” says Martin, who presided over both the shortest and the longest meetings since 1994. He also recalls the lengthy debate over the widening of Broadway Avenue (six hours and 55 minutes), the public hearing on the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance (nearly five-and-a-half hours on May 17, 1994) and the cold winter night when Council listened to a rather warm, five-and-a-half-hour discussion of the city’s sign ordinance (Feb. 7, 1995). “Anything that speakers feel emotional about will take longer to discuss. [But] we needed those long meetings to hash things out,” Martin observes.

But flip back a few years in the big, red-leather books of meeting minutes stored in a vault in City Hall, and the picture shifts. When Dick Wood was mayor, back in the early ’70s, sessions rarely exceeded two hours.

“I can certainly remember some two- and three-hour zoning hearings and continuances to harangue further over an issue,” Wood remarks in his Southern-gentleman’s drawl, “but our meetings were nowhere near the length of those today. We encouraged people to speak, but they just didn’t seem to be as long-winded back in those days.” Nor were there as many special-interest groups then as there are now, Wood figures.

But how about Council members talking too much?

Wood guffawed. “I was coming to that,” he said. “Politicians today do seem to have more of a compulsion to go on record saying why they voted this way or that. Some would call that political posturing and pontificating, others would just say it’s stating your position.” He adds that there also seems to be more “intra-Council” dialogue, these days: Council members tend to take longer to discuss things among themselves during regular meetings.

“Maybe television has had some effect,” suggests Lou Bissette (mayor, 1985-89). With the cameras focused on them, he speculates, Council members may be more inclined to state (and restate) their positions. “And probably, back in the 1980s, there wasn’t the activism and special-interest groups there are now,” Bissette reflects. While having a more involved public can be a good thing, he continues, excessively long meetings wear everyone down.

Council member Barbara Field once observed that, after four or five hours at a meeting, she gets a bit brain-dead.

Says Bissette, “It’s great to listen and have dialogue. But at some point, Council members have to make a decision.”

But listening to constituents — “That’s part of the job. That’s what Council members are paid for,” Bissette emphasizes.

Martin agrees. Take the case of a man who regularly spoke at Council meetings: Ralph Bishop, who often got in shouting matches with Martin, chewing out both city staff and Council members for failing to keep verbatim minutes. Wood recalls that Bishop also preached to the captive choir in Mayor Roy Trantham‘s day (1977-82). But Trantham,Wood recounts, would simply hand the gavel to his vice mayor and leave, whenever Bishop spoke. And Martin actually had police haul Bishop out of Council chambers once, after he launched into a round of name-calling.

“But even Ralph Bishop deserves to be heard,” says Martin now. “People feel that government is more responsive when they have an opportunity to talk about things.”

He cites the public’s heightened awareness about issues — including the recognition that banding together and appearing en masse before Council gets results — as key factors in the increasing length of meetings.

Former Council member Eugene Ellison cites the fact that Council meetings start later now (5 p.m. instead of 4). “In my day, we were done before most of the working folks got home from work,” says Ellison. Discussions and questions about pending business also used to be routinely handled in pre-Council sessions; the actual meetings rarely exceeded two hours, he recalls.

The later start — implemented when Martin was mayor (and pushed by then-Council member Sitnick) — creates “a more accessible process,” Ellison believes.

What’s more, for the past two years, city staff and Council members alike have been touting what they call “community-oriented government,” holding quarterly meetings at selected sites north, south, east and west; hooking Council members and city departments into an Internet Web page; and allowing most everyone with an itching tongue to speak at Council meetings.

“My style is for open government,” Sitnick told Council members during their August 1998 miniretreat. And when meetings seem to drag on, with speaker after speaker haranguing Council, she regularly remarks: “Democracy takes time. If we’re here all night, so be it.”

To date, Sitnick’s average meeting length is three-and-a-half hours. But she defends those lengthy sessions, pointing out, “Our longest meetings were on issues of great complexity and concern to the community — the cable-franchise contract [more than six hours], Memorial Stadium [almost six], Trinity Baptist [almost five]. Frankly, kudos to Council members that people feel comfortable enough to come before [us] and get heard.”

At the miniretreat, Sitnick suggested nearly a dozen ways to make meetings shorter, such as: limiting follow-up staff presentations to five minutes; encouraging speakers not to repeat previous comments; limiting group spokespersons to eight minutes, instead of the current 10; and limiting comments by the mayor or other Council members to two or three minutes.

“I’m not sure I want to limit Council members to two or three minutes,” said Vice Mayor Ed Hay, responding to that last suggestion.

“If we’re going to ask the public to be [brief], we have to look at ourselves, too,” countered Sitnick. (Council members had recently enacted a new rule that limits speakers on nonagenda items to 10 minutes for a single spokesperson, or three minutes each for three speakers.)

Most Council members seemed agreeable to those policy suggestions (Council member O.T. Tomes said simply, “You’re the mayor,” leaving meeting lengths to her discretion). Sitnick then turned to City Clerk Maggie Burleson, asking, “What else can be done to shorten meetings?”

With the spotlight on her, Burleson’s eyes widened. “I’d like to have time to think about that,” she replied diplomatically. But Burleson did note that reports from outside agencies, groups and consultants — usually presented at work sessions — often exceed the 10- to 30-minute time limit recommended by staff. (The average Sitnick work session has run nearly four hours — which may also reflect, in part, the need to bring Council newcomers Earl Cobb and Tomes up to speed on certain issues).

After a little friendly pressure from Sitnick, however, Burleson finally admitted, “There’s a lot of repeating by Council members.”

Not one of the accused could counter that observation: They all laughed.

Maybe that’s why our earliest Council members never included the finish times of their meetings in the official records. So we’ll never know just how long it took the Council of 1899 (who met on Friday mornings) to discuss an ordinance forbidding unmarried couples “of different sex, not being husband and wife, to register as husband and wife … at any hotel or boarding house in the city of Asheville.”

As a Democratic hopeful in the upcoming state-representative race joked recently at a women’s-issues breakfast, “I have an evangelical gene that prevents me from speaking briefly on any issue.”

The 10 longest meetings

Here’s a list of the longest meetings since January 1994. Do the main topics bring back any memories?

• Aug. 6, 1996 7 hours, 15 minutes (UDO work session)

• June 6, 1995 7 hours, 2 minutes (public comment)

• Jan. 11, 1994 6 hours, 55 minutes (Broadway widening)

• May 27, 1997 6 hours, 55 minutes (UDO vote)

• April 30, 1996 6 hours, 24 minutes (Larry Linney appeal)

• Feb. 24, 1998 6 hours, 12 minutes (cable-franchise hearing)

• Dec. 6, 1994 6 hours, 4 minutes (Minority Business Plan and Montford rezoning)

• June 18, 1996 5 hours, 55 minutes (curbside recycling)

• June 27, 1995 5 hours, 48 minutes (budget: outside agencies)

• April 3,1997 5hours, 45 minutes (UDO public hearing)

Meeting-time trivia

Here are a few averages — dating from Jan. 11, 1994:

Average formal session 2 hours, 50 minutes

• Martin’s average meeting 2 hours, 42 minutes

• Sitnick’s (through September 98) 3 hours, 35 minutes

Average work session 3 hours, 16 minutes

• Martin’s average 3 hours, 7 minutes

• Sitnick’s average 3 hours, 47 minutes

• Average — all sessions combined, 1994-1998 3 hours

• Average in 1990 2 hours, 19 minutes

• Average UDO session 4 hours, 24 minutes

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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