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Editorial: Trying to wrangle a messy business — democracy

Any news reporter who’s spent much time on a government beat that involves covering meetings of boards, committees or councils understands the impulse to limit how long or how many times the people who sit on these august bodies can speak.

Particularly when meetings can go on for hours, a ban on long-winded, repetitive, self-aggrandizing or irrelevant talk can seem like a good thing. Time also gets wasted over revisiting details or determining facts that a diligent board member or councilor could have learned about by performing basic due diligence, like reading the materials in the agenda packet beforehand.

Currently, the Santa Fe City Council is wrestling with amendments to its meeting rules for the expressed purpose of bringing more efficiency to the process.

Some good things have come out of the discussion so far. An amendment approved this week requires the council to state with “reasonable” specificity what it votes on after coming out of executive session, an apparent reaction to a couple of recent council actions directing city staff to do unspecified, secret somethings that had been discussed behind closed doors.

The council axed a proposal specifying that whoever is chairing a meeting – such as the mayor or a committee chairman – could have people removed from meetings for making “personal, intemperate or slanderous remarks.” The amended language says speakers can be reminded when such comments are considered out of order.

In any case, ejecting or shutting down a member of the public addressing the council should remain an exceptional action and considered extreme. At least “impertinent” has been removed as an adjective for the kind of remarks banned from council chambers. It remains uncomfortably unclear when someone might cross the line into “personal” or “intemperate” remarks when criticizing a councilor or the mayor.

The council seems to be struggling the most with how to police itself over wasting time. At a Monday meeting, the council Finance Committee voted against limiting the number of times a councilor can speak on a particular item and putting time limits on councilor remarks. Now it appears the council will fall back to Robert’s Rules of Order on such issues, and the long-standing bible of parliamentary procedure does provide for limits on how long and how many times a board or committee member can talk. So Robert’s might do the same thing the now-abandoned proposed council rules would have institutionalized.

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Former councilor Karen Heldmeyer correctly points out that these kinds of limits would require something akin to a scorekeeper to keep track of who’s spoken how many times and use a stopwatch to monitor a councilor’s time limit – not the best way to ensure a complicated issue is fully vetted. There’s a legitimate fear that restrictions could be used to shut down real debate.

Democracy is a messy business. It sometimes requires allowing dozens of citizens to voice their opinions over hours and having elected officials thrash out an issue. Those of us who’ve sat through a lot of government meetings certainly sympathize with Councilor Sig Lindell’s comment that it pained her to give up on councilor speaking limits – public service is tough enough without having sit through rambling or unnecessary commentary into the wee hours – but the alternative is to risk limiting what needs to be said or exposed.

Trying to shorten and better focus council meetings is a commendable goal, for councilors and for members of the public who choose to observe or participate in the meetings. Those of us in the Fourth Estate also have seen a few elected officials with special skills for chairing public meetings able to allow a full, fair discussion while moving things along and clamping down on the extraneous.

The best solution is for the City Council to establish a group culture of coming to meetings prepared, and speaking as succinctly as possible and to the point.

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