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Council wrangles over new meeting format

By Staff | Jan 30, 2013

As soon as the gavel fell at Monday’s city council meeting at city hall, board members had a problem with the consent agenda, spending nearly a half-hour to resolve the wrangle.

Two weeks ago, another lengthy discussion was had on a last-minute discussion item that council didn’t get until the morning of the meeting.

It has added time to already lengthy meetings that have been the norm so far in 2013.

Some argue it’s due to the new format of the meetings while others say it’s due to, well, old arguments.

Monday’s city council meeting went past midnight, with several discussion topics moved to next week. The workshop meeting two weeks earlier went past 10 p.m.

Last month city council agreed to change the format of its meetings to allow for a voting element at all meetings in the event something at the last minute needed to be decided.

The experiment would last six months, with council then deciding whether to make the format permanent.

It was Councilmember Rana Erbrick’s contention that there was too much time “workshopping” items and not enough in actually voting. With five months where council would hold just one voting meeting, council saw the need for change.

The voting element has been a factor, with council approving a student resource officer for the charter schools two weeks ago without first workshopping the issue.

“Why would we want to wait two weeks for that when they say they have the right guy?” Councilmember Kevin McGrail said. “It passed unanimously.”

But so far, after two meetings, there has been much time spent just trying to figure out the new agenda and how to hold a meeting.

Two weeks ago, Mayor John Sullivan confronted City Manager John Szerlag regarding a last-minute discussion item put on the agenda concerning the utilities expansion project.

“I want to make sure council has enough time to look at these things before the meeting so they can look at it and generate the questions they have,” Sullivan said two weeks ago.

According to McGrail, Szerlag is bringing up “administrative resolutions,” where he brings every item to council for formal resolution, which the mayor misinterprets as Szerlag determining the agenda, McGrail said.

“Szerlag is attempting to be clear and definitive on how he presents issues because when he looked at the UEP votes in the past. They didn’t know what they voted on,” McGrail said.

Monday’s argument was about purported confusion over a third part of the consent agenda reserved for items that would be discussed and not voted on.

Sullivan said he feared those consent items would be voted on without public discussion, or enough council discussion, beforehand.

Councilmember Marty McClain said technically there are consent agenda items that can go out every week.

“We identified items as discussion only or we workshop items tonight, and with one item we did exercise the right to vote,” McClain said. “I don’t know if there was confusion. I don’t know where it came from because it was clear how it was going forward.”

With topics such as the gas station proposal downtown and the need for a student resource officer at the magnet schools garnering much attention, a longer meeting was expected.

However, Councilmember Chris Chulakes-Leetz has been the most vocal, calling staying after midnight for a meeting “ridiculous,” even going as far as to recommend suspending the experiment.

He made a case in point when discussion items for the upcoming meeting with Lee County officials were pushed back to next week due to the length of the meeting.

“We’re workshopping and voting in the same meeting. That’s why these meetings are taking forever,” Chulakes-Leetz said as he left early Tuesday morning.

McClain said there were a lot of new year items that needed discussion, so he doesn’t see council falling back to 2009, with meetings going well into the morning. It’s just going to take time to figure things out.

“Change is difficult sometimes. We didn’t have a template from when we decided to do this,” McClain said. “We’ll get there. It’s a six-month trial. We want to give this the best opportunity so the city manager and staff can move these things expeditiously.”