Déjà Vu All Over Again: Proposed Council Rules Reduce Transparency

Last week, some proposed council rule changes popped up on the agenda at the last minute.  (See Unfair Park’s great post explaining the rule changes.) Some of the proposed rules were good, like requiring councilmembers to attend more than half a meeting to be counted as present.  But one of the rules seemed to be a retread of what the mayor pushed for last year, and I didn’t like it any better in reruns:  eliminating morning speakers.

For those of you unfamiliar with public speaking times before the council, here’s how it works:  Every Wednesday council meeting, the public can sign up to speak on any topic in either the morning or afternoon.  There are five slots for the morning and unlimited slots in the afternoon.  If you’re a City Hall regular who’s spoken in the last 30 days, you’re automatically bumped to the afternoon, leaving the morning open to others.

The problem with eliminating morning speakers is that it’s much more convenient for working folks to take off an hour in the morning than spend the whole afternoon with the council, waiting to speak.  See, if you speak in the afternoon, you have to wait til after the council meeting, and that can be two o’clock or 6 o’clock — our schedule is unpredictable.  But if you speak in the morning, you’ll typically speak around 9:30 a.m. and be out before 10:30 a.m.

I strongly oppose this proposed rule change.  We should be making it easier, not more difficult, to speak before the City Council.

I also object to the proposal to require councilmembers to pull a consent item off the agenda by 5pm on Monday before the Wednesday council meeting.  See, we’ve this “consent agenda” where the city manager consolidates what she perceives to be non-controversial items into a single voting group, and we vote up or down on the whole group at once.  Problem is, sometimes there are items that are on the consent agenda that need to be discussed and voted on individually.  Currently, any councilmember can remove an item from the consent agenda until the moment we vote on the consent agenda.  The new proposal would require us to do this two days before.  Or we could get the mayor or the majority of the council to agree to hear the item individually.

The problem with this is two-fold.  First, addendum consent items aren’t delivered to the council until the Friday night before the Wednesday council meeting.  That means a councilmember would only have one day to speak with city staff, talk with constituents, and consult other councilmembers before the proposed deadline.  Since most Mondays are full of council committee meetings, I’m not sure when there’d be time to gather all this intell.

Second, there are times when a constituent comes down to City Hall Wednesday morning and makes a good case for pulling something off the consent agenda.  Maybe the item needs some tweaking, or maybe it needs to be sent back to committee.  Maybe it needs to be denied.  Either way, a councilmember has the right to pull the item from the consent agenda and air those concerns publicly.

Frankly, I’ve too often seen the consent agenda, and especially the addendum consent agenda, used as a means to sneak through controversial items without debate.  So the idea that the authority to allow exceptions would rest solely with the mayor or majority of the council isn’t good enough.  What about controversial items that the mayor or council majority wants to see sail through without debate?

Take these proposed rule changes, for instance.  They were put on the consent addendum, meaning we got them only a few days before we were to vote on them.  Those are pretty significant changes to be presented at the last minute, but that’s what you do if you want to slip something through unchallenged.  Councilmember Vonciel Hill pulled the item off the consent agenda — the day before the vote, something she couldn’t do under the proposed rules — and requested a full council briefing.

Less transparency breeds suspicion and contempt for government.  We need to be making our City Hall more transparent, more open for debate and discussion, not less.  I was pleased to see the Dallas Morning News editorial board weigh in against the proposed rule changes, noting, “Efficiency is a wonderful thing, but in this case, we hope the Dallas City Council won’t let it trump transparency and trust in government.”