Vinny Cervoni is beginning his tenure as Wallingford Town Council Chairman in a most businesslike manner by proposing changes to the procedures under which Town Council meetings operate. Limiting public input on agenda items to thirty minutes and a maximum of three times to the microphone during the 20-minute public question-and-answer period will indeed enable the meetings to be more efficient. Having participated in (or should I say endured?) fourteen years of these meetings, I support both of these changes.
There are a few members of the public who are aghast at such an abridgment of their ability to participate, but I would ask them to consider these two subjects: the purpose of the meetings, and consideration of the public.
The purpose of a Town Council meeting is for the nine Councilors to carry out their responsibilities. In Wallingford, as in almost every other functioning government in this country, we have a representative democracy, with the emphasis on representative. The old New England Town Meeting form of government where every town resident can vote on issues does not work in a community our size. Therefore we elect representatives every two years to act in our behalf.
They meet on the second and fourth Tuesdays to do just that. Per our Town Charter, they are charged with financial oversight and other responsibilities, and they meet to deliberate items that come under their purview. That is what the meetings are for. They are not wide-open gabfests. They are not public hearings. The fact that the public is welcome to attend the meetings does not obligate these nine individuals to listen to endless and often redundant commentary from the same handful of individuals who have appointed themselves as a “shadow council” weighing in on every agenda item.
Which brings me to the second point: consideration of the public. In last week’s meeting, several of the aforementioned individuals claimed that these proposed limits would discourage the public from attending or speaking. I maintain that just the opposite effect will prevail if these changes are adopted.
As it stands now, unless there is an item on the agenda that personally affects a large group of people, these meetings are sparsely attended. One of the reasons is the endurance it takes to sit out in the audience waiting for your specific item to come up for discussion while councilors, having finished their own remarks, listen patiently while the “public” beats each item to death. Who wants to sit through all of that waiting for the item that they wish to weigh in on to come up? Answer: They don’t. At home, you have the advantage of one of the twentieth century’s great inventions: fast forward.
By the way, while we’re on the subject, the present Rules of Procedure also state that during Public Question-and-Answer, only one question may be asked at one time by each individual and that speaking time is limited to three minutes. Those two reasonable restrictions have been so abused as to have become meaningless. Furthermore, speaking time on agenda items is limited to three minutes. If you have watched any of these meetings within the last ten years, would you have believed such a rule exists?
Holding legislative meetings in municipal government is a bit of a balancing act.
Of course it is important that constituents be heard, and it is my belief that ours is as open a process as exists.
But there has to be some understanding on the part of those that currently comprise the “public” that the decision-making process is not an open-ended free-for-all. Not only does unlimited public input bog down that process, but also, by making it so time consuming, it discourages new voices from being heard.
Thus the irony is that adoption of these rule changes will result in better meetings in which more people might want to participate. That is the goal, isn’t it?
Stephen Knight is a former Wallingford Town Councilor.