The Gospel According to Jerry

What’s the difference between an Asheville City Council meeting and a kabuki dance?

The answer: Not much. Both are excruciatingly tedious and seem to go on forever.

The Asheville City Council is like the board of directors of a major corporation. The directors are elected by the citizen stakeholders who are residents of Asheville. Council members are elected to represent their constituents in matters of city business.

What City Council is not is a debating society or a plebiscite; nor is it intended to provide a public forum for every cockamamie philosophy in the political spectrum. Meetings are also not show-and-tell time for the individual ego trips of Council or audience members who want to get their name in the paper or grab their moment of fame on television.

These interminable meetings started under Mayor Leni Sitnick, who adhered to the egalitarian dictum of having “citizen input” in all aspects of city government. Over the years, that “input” has mostly emanated from the same group of regulars who seem to appear at almost every Council meeting. This has resulted in sessions lasting as much as six or eight hours — and even then, they haven’t always gotten through the agenda, and some issues have had to be continued.

Mayor Terry Bellamy has made a valiant effort to rein things in but has gotten little cooperation from the public and even less from her Council colleagues. Yet the mayor of Asheville is empowered to preside over City Council meetings; when she holds the symbolic gavel, she has complete control over the meeting, including the right to recognize or ignore anyone wishing to speak.

So to help keep things moving, here’s what I suggest. When the public-comment period begins, the mayor should allow several speakers to weigh in. After that, she should paraphrase the arguments from both sides and then ask who has something new to add to the discussion. If a speaker starts repeating points that have already been made, she should gavel them down.

Some would complain that this would unfairly limit free speech, but there’s nothing to keep any resident from contacting Council members, who graciously make their phone numbers and e-mail addresses public.

Besides, if we’re really interested in democracy, then the goal must be to get people from all walks of life involved in city government. And as things now stand, attending City Council meetings is a privilege reserved for retirees and the idle rich. Working people and family care providers, who don’t have the luxury of waiting countless hours for a chance to express their opinions, are effectively shut out of the process altogether.

I often wonder whether this is a deliberate tactic to maintain class discrimination. During the 1920s and early ’30s, the Communist Party used this ploy to take over the unions. Their people would prolong union meetings late into the night, until everyone who had to go to work the next day had left. Only then would they hold their elections and take votes.

City Council members can also play a major role in making meetings operate efficiently. They must understand that citizens aren’t interested in hearing Council members say, “I think this is a good idea” and then launching into a long philosophical diatribe as to why they’re going to vote against it. Serving on Council is not a popularity contest, as they must surely have found out by now. And the bulk of their discussion should be directed not toward the citizenry but toward their Council colleagues, in order to win their support.

I was a member of Toastmasters International for many years, and they long ago recognized that the hardness of the seats is the enemy of effective public speaking. I therefore prescribe the Toastmaster mantra for City Council: “Stand up, speak up and shut up.” After that, just vote your conscience and move on.

To this end, I challenge City Council to order a study of all their regular meetings since the present Council took office. Videotapes of these meetings are available, and the study should determine both the average number of times each member spoke and how much time they used. This would be a wonderful project for UNCA’s political science department.

I am sure the results would shock Council members and persuade them to enact some time limits, to be strictly enforced by the mayor. If necessary, time each Council member just as citizens are timed. Even the august bodies of the U.S. Congress place limits on their debates. Council members owe it to themselves to streamline their meetings. They also owe it to city residents and to those dedicated staffers who must work all day and then endure these protracted sessions way into the night.

I am well aware that Asheville is a profoundly politically divided and contentious community. But with a little effort, Council meetings could at least do the fox trot, even if they can’t dance the Macarena.

[Local developer Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the community scene. He can be reached at gospeljerry@aol.com]

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