About the only positive thing to come out of the recent, combative and endless Santa Fe City Council meetings over zoning and development controversies has been the realization that there has to be a better way to do this.
First, Councilor Patti Bushee proposed putting a firm midnight time limit on council meetings. Now, Mayor Javier Gonzales has come forward with a plan to streamline council proceedings after recent sessions went to near or past 12 a.m. Interested citizens who wanted to speak or watch the council vote had to stick around way too long. Participatory democracy shouldn’t be an endurance contest.
The biggest change that the mayor suggests is splitting consideration of controversial issues that are expected to draw huge amounts of public comment and debate into two meetings – a public hearing at one session and council vote at another.
That may not be a bad idea, but it does have some negatives. Councilors wouldn’t have to feel the heat and vote in the face of those big crowds from which many stand up and urge their elected officials to take a stand. Under Gonzales’ plan, interested citizens might feel they have to show up a second time, just to be present, and watch and make sure the council gets their message.
Also, one has to wonder about what happens between a public hearing on one night and a council vote a couple of weeks later – potentially illegal ex parte communications on a quasi-judicial zoning decision, perhaps?
There may be too much of that going on already, as has been suggested by the recent fight, or “circus,” as one councilor called it, over trying to redo that 5-4 midnight vote favoring the MorningStar assisted living facility on Old Pecos Trail.
We’ve always felt the best solution is for the council simply to call special, single-issue meetings when it’s known that hundreds will attend and dozens want to speak, as in the recent controversies over MorningStar and the El Rio apartment plan on Agua Fria.
Start the meetings early in the evening, with no preliminaries, no routine business, no congratulatory ceremonies for outstanding service or winning sports teams. Gonzales’ idea of having those who want to speak sign in as way to organize public hearings and eliminate long lines at the microphone sounds like a good way to help move the proceedings along.
And if it’s likely to go really long anyway, or if people might not have time for dinner after work and before the meeting, why not have some food trucks on hand to sustain the members of the public waiting for a vote?
In any case, it’s a good idea for the council to look for ways to shorten and speed up its deliberative process. That would make it easier for both the public and for councilors who need to weigh what citizens and their fellow members of the governing body have to say.
It just shouldn’t also be a way for councilors or the mayor to test the political winds before they cast a vote.