March 4, 2014 9:58:43 AM
There was likely nothing sinister involved in the series of four non-quorum meetings the city council has held over the past month. The meetings, divided into two separate meetings with different council members attending each, allow the city to meet without advising the public and without either the public or media present. The city met with Golden Triangle Development LINK officials in these types of meetings to smooth over a dispute who the city would use to recruit new retail development. Those meetings were followed by a pair of non-quorum meetings as the city put together a new plan for renovations of the Trotter Convention Center after bids came in at more than twice the amount budgeted for construction.
For a story in Sunday's Dispatch, we polled each council member about the practice. While all six agreed non-quorum meetings should be used infrequently, all agreed these meetings can be productive, creating an atmosphere for "frank discussion." The council members defended their use of the meetings this month by asserting that no decisions were made because no votes were taken.
We disagree. There is a distinction to be made between making a decision and taking a vote. You can certainly do the former without doing the latter.
It seems obvious to us that when the council takes an immediate vote with no discussion on a matter it has previously discussed during non-quorum meetings, some understanding, agreement or arrangement has been made during those meetings. So the idea that the council hasn't done business in these meetings defies logic.
City business should be conducted in the open. Certainly, there will be instances where the subject matter is so delicate that a non-quorum meeting is prudent. But aside from say, negotiations for a land purchase or a discussion about a business being recruited to the city, we can think of few cases where non-quorum meetings are appropriate. It is worth noting that the city benefits from the state's Open Meetings laws, which are far less restrictive than in many states. Under those laws, city governments are given much wriggle room to discuss some types of matters in executive session.
As for the "frank discussion" that non-quorum meetings promote, we feel it would be very healthy for the council to have some of those frank discussions publicly. Citizens have a right to hear that debate. What's more, the council's credibility is enhanced when the public knows the council has discussed thoroughly the matters they act on.
We are not advocating the council regularly stage a knock-down, drag-out spectacle before a viewing audience of citizens and media. We believe council members should conduct themselves in a dignified, respectful manner. But that does not mean the council cannot engage in spirited debate, which would benefit both citizens and council members alike.
When tempted to go to the non-quorum meeting as means of escaping public view, the council would be well-served to think again and commit to doing the public's business in the public eye, no matter how uncomfortable that might be.