Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Day 9 - Attending a City Council Meeting

I have never been to a city council meeting.  Although I generally care about the goings on in my community, I have never had a reason to attend such a meeting.  More specifically, I have not encountered any local issues about which I felt passionate enough to make my voice heard, and I have maintained very little interest in witnessing the procedural intricacies of city government in action. As a result, attending a city council meeting was never high on my list of priorities. Despite this indifference toward city council activities, I knew attending a common council meeting would be a good opportunity to experience something new for my ongoing challenge. Additionally, I knew it would be nice to have a relatively motion free "I have never..." event following yesterday's biking adventure. As a result, I made plans to attend today's city council meeting, and prepared myself for the thrill of a lifetime...

After completing my workday, I immediately headed to city hall in downtown Madison. I entered the building, grabbed a summary agenda off of a nearby table, and found my way to common council meeting room. The room was a moderately sized hodgepodge of legislative desks and theatre seating in a conference room motif.  The setup seemed a little odd to me as the citizen seating sat tucked in the front corners of the room facing outward toward the opposite side of the building.  With the council seated facing the mayor's raised desk at the front of the room, the citizen seating required craning of the neck to see and hear the activity in the council chambers. Shortly after I determined the best position from which I could observe the proceedings, the mayor called the council into session.  Within minutes of the meeting starting one thing became obvious to me:

Democracy is... cumbersome.

The first thirty minutes of the meeting were spent recognizing the 100th anniversary of a local corporation, the 50th anniversary of a local elementary school, and a recently departed Madison police officer. While the recognition of each person or group had touching moments, I began wondering what I got myself into as I paged through the more than 100 topics that littered the pages of my agenda.  At the pace the meeting was going I figured I would be lucky to get home before midnight.

Democracy in slow motion...
The methodical pace of discussion and debate continued as the council opened up a public hearing on a proposed west side development. One by one, proponents and opponents of the development approached podiums on either side of the mayor's desk. Each of them expressed their opinions on the proposed project through prepared statements or off the cuff remarks. Although the process took time, it was interesting to see the passion with which each person spoke. I heard of the tax benefits the project would provide, the concerns about the project's residential density, and the concerns for safety voiced by parents that knew the development would bring much heavier traffic to their now suburban neighborhood.  Citizens, experts, and businesspeople expressed their thoughts on the project, each presenting their interpretations of a previously developed neighborhood plan as support for their contrary opinions. Ultimately, the people wishing to speak each had their turn, which gave the council members opportunity to express their thoughts on the project.  In total, the process took more than an hour, after which the council moved to a vote and passed the proposal.

The full agenda...
I took a deep breath as I realized we had only moved through a handful of topics on the agenda some 90 minutes after meeting began. People began to file out the meeting room doors in droves, leaving me and a few other people in the gallery. At that time I considered bailing on the remainder of the meeting, but I decided to take one last glance at the agenda topics in case something appealed to me. Just as I began to estimate how long it would take to cover all of the topics on the agenda at the current pace, I saw the mayor motion to a member of the council. The councilman approached the front desk and walked up the ramp to meet the mayor at his chair. They whispered to one another briefly and proceeded to swap positions. I sat puzzled as I watched the mayor gather his belongings and walk toward the door. I leaned in my chair to peak out the interior windows just in time to see the mayor walking through a pair of elevator doors. I struggled to make sense of this occurrence considering so many topics remained on the agenda, but before I could make sense of what happened the council acted on a series of quick motions and approved all but two of the remaining agenda topics. With a proverbial snap of the fingers the council pushed through more than 100 new ordinances, permits, and other matters of city business. I was stunned as the meeting moved from a snail's pace to light speed, but I was happy to see things moving along.

In the final minutes of the meeting the council took time to discuss the dissolution of an outdated and unattended committee and a trial of alum injections to decrease phosphorus contaminants in a city pond.  With no citizen input, the council asked questions of experts and debated each topic with their peers in an effort to draw independent conclusions. Finally, the group made decisions on both topics and moved to adjourn the meeting. Two hours after the meeting had started, the gavel fell and the remaining attendees began heading for the doors.

Madison: Brought to you by monotonous,
archaic procedures since 1848
I started running through all of the tedious aspects of what I just witnessed as I found my way back to the building's entrance. I concluded that the meeting was about as boring as I expected, and I started to think it would be the last time I would ever attend such an event. However, I quickly questioned that line of thinking as my initial thoughts on the experience faded.  My disdain for the process was replaced with consideration of the importance such a forum plays in the development of the community around me. Despite earlier thoughts of dismissal, I realized that I would certainly sit through another council meeting if I felt as passionate about a local issue as the citizens I saw take the podium throughout the meeting. That feeling was reinforced as I crossed the threshold of the exterior city hall door and looked around at the streets and buildings around me.  Crossing Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard I thought about how all of the monotonous, archaic procedures I witnessed during the meeting made everything around me possible. That takeaway along was worth the time I spent at tonight's city council meeting.

1 comment:

  1. I have to attend a corporate meeting at one of local meeting space San Francisco. Have heard lot about this venue but never attended any meeting there. This will be my first attempt. Would love to be there and excited for the day.