Late meetings frequent for City Council
September 19, 2011
ASPEN – “It’s past my bedtime,” city of Aspen environmental health specialist Ashley Cantrell joked just after 10 p.m. last Monday at the City Council’s regular meeting as she started to discuss details of a proposed ordinance.
“Good morning,” one councilman told her.
“You’re young, but not that young,” said Mayor Mick Ireland.
At that point, the meeting was five hours into what would end up being a six. That’s not a record by any stretch; meetings during Aspen’s 2005-07 development boom often would run past the midnight hour.
Only on a few occasions this year have Ireland and the council carried their discourse into the next day. But there’s plenty of opportunity for lengthy meetings over the next two months, given the scheduling of 17 regular meetings, work sessions and informal discussions on weighty topics involving the 2012 budget, the Aspen Area Community Plan, development proposals, affordable housing programs and the like.
The issue of whether the council needs to meet for as long as it does – and whether some sort of system is needed to make the meetings more efficient – is nothing new. Local newspapers and residents have opined about the topic often over the years, perhaps in part because of the inconvenience of having to sit through lengthy discussions on mundane matters before officials finally got to the topic in which they were interested.
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During council elections last spring, candidate Cliff Weiss, a member of the city Planning and Zoning Commission, remarked that his first order of business would be to work with the city to ensure that the twice-monthly regular meetings don’t run past 9 p.m.
“I would work with the other council members to revise the land-use application process so that council adds to the process and doesn’t simply rehash it. I would change council meetings schedules to not go past 9 o’clock, exhausting the council and the public,” Weiss told The Aspen Times. He failed to win one of the two seats up for grabs in the election, and thus was unable to further his goal.
During the same campaign, Councilman Steve Skadron stated that local government’s biggest problem was that “City Council meetings are way too long. I hope to be more efficient in my preparation and encourage my fellow council members to do the same.” But the issue of reducing meeting lengths has yet to surface during council discussions since Skadron’s re-election.
Ireland said in an interview last week that the question of whether meetings run too long is legitimate. He said there are pros and cons associated with trying to shorten council discussions and public hearings.
“Nobody likes a long meeting, because your concentration falls off; it’s just human nature. It’s hard to concentrate for a long time on difficult and sometimes tedious material,” he said.
“But one person’s tedium is another person’s right to speak. There’s a certain due process element, especially when developers come in, allowing them to make their case even if you’ve heard it three or four times. You don’t want to create a record that enables them to say, ‘We didn’t have a chance to present, Your Honor.’ “
Ireland also pointed out that Aspen is a community made up of many “alpha dogs used to having their bark.”
“That’s part of the price of democracy,” he said. “We’re doing our best; we’re trying to ask presenters if they can do their presentations in half an hour. Some have gotten better about speeding up. That, I think, helps.”
But the developers and architects seeking approval for their projects are not the only ones responsible for extending the life of a meeting. Council members sometimes restate points made only minutes before by their peers. Up to 30 minutes of a meeting’s beginning can resemble a pep rally, in which officials seek to promote a community event or praise someone.
There’s a reason for allowing those types of comments, Ireland said. “You don’t get that many opportunities to acknowledge the positive things people have done in the community,” he said.
Adam Frisch is the newest member of the council and has been on the job only for a little more than three months. He said nobody in government wants long meetings, but they are a reflection of the amount of business the council must tackle.
“I think our meetings are going pretty well, as far as honoring the process and not short-shrifting things,” he said. “I think the council’s always trying to do a better job – and everybody could probably do a better job – of being more succinct when we speak. Staff and developer presentations could sometimes be a little tighter, and community members could be more thoughtful about what they say up there.”
But Frisch said there is no perfect system or “magic bullet” for ending council meetings at a reasonable hour. Council members could experiment with a self-imposed deadline, 9:30 p.m. for instance.
“We could try a timetable, but the community has a right and expectation to speak and that needs to be honored,” he said.
Another option, Frisch said, could involve council members working more closely with city staff to lighten the agenda so that it’s not packed with multiple issues likely to generate long discussions.
“I’m not sure if more than one development project per meeting should be part of the process,” he said. “What’s the quality of discussion at 11 o’clock?”
Starting its regular meetings earlier than 5 p.m. is unlikely, both Frisch and Ireland said, because most council members have day jobs. Also, the city wants to encourage residents to participate in meetings or watch them on television, and the 5 p.m. start allows workers to make the meetings.