by Terry Rogers
On Monday, January 10, City Manager Mark Whitfield presented a new meeting calendar for City Council designed to allow for more discussion time. Council meetings would remain on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, but workshops would move to Wednesday. Committee meetings would be eliminated while council liaisons would be appointed to different departments where they would hold informal meetings with staff.
“Over the past year, we really had only two committees, the police committee and the finance committee who met monthly,” Whitfield said. “The police committee only met over the past year, I believe, five or six times. One of the concerns I have expressed with various council people is that we typically give more information to four council people that we don’t give to the other four council people. The second thing that happens is oftentimes committee meetings are also completely repeated at a council meeting, so we really aren’t saving much time in terms of having committees.”
Under the new arrangement, council liaisons will meet with staff in order to discuss items that are going to or could come before council. This will allow council to get feedback on various topics in an informal setting. There would be no need for minutes of the meeting as no more than two council members would be in attendance and no decisions can be made. It would simply be a way for council to get additional information before the item came before council.
“The other idea was workshops,” Whitfield said. “This evening was a really good example. We were actually supposed to have a finance committee meeting. We started at 5:45 PM and we just could not jam everything in prior to the meeting and then fully discuss them. I know, oftentimes, we end up cutting short on topics and feeling like we haven’t fully discussed any of the topics. So, having one night a month set aside for strictly work session may give you more time to be able to have open discussions on various topics that are coming up. Again, from a staff standpoint, we value the feedback we get from council as we finalize and formalize ordinances. Doing that in a workshop setting more often may benefit everyone. Again, we’re not just getting four council people’s opinion, we’re getting the opinion of all eight people as well as the mayor at the same time.”
Councilman Mike Boyle pointed out that he was under the impression that council committee members were supposed to be prepared to discuss anything that came out of the meeting. Whitfield stated that with the new liaison method, the meeting would be much more informal than a council meeting and that the liaisons should not discuss what happened in the meeting until it was before council. Councilman Boyle then asked how council would bring things to meetings that they felt needed to be discussed.
“I’ll give you a really good example,” Whitfield said. “I know that some time ago, the idea of Comcast come forward to council to do a presentation and that has been really hard to schedule based on all the other things that we have going on.”
City Solicitor David Rutt explained how the process would work.
“If you had the liaison go to a meeting, let’s just say it’s with Lou in Finance,” Rutt said. “You go in, you talk to him, you hear what’s going on with him and staff and so forth. Bring it back to either the council meeting or the workshop as the body of the whole. You don’t have a preliminary discussion, you don’t do emails, phone calls, or three or four of us have coffee and talk this over. The idea is you get the information, bring it back and then you go back to them, to the group, to Lou and say council talked about this. These are some of the things that we as a council talked about in terms of the issues that they’re having, and you discuss it that way. It’s a process, not a one-time situation where maybe you go in with answers to their questions.”
Mayor Archie Campbell pointed out that currently, with committee meetings, council and the mayor spend an hour in that meeting and then spend at least another hour and a half in council, often discussing the same things.
“The idea is you eliminate the committee meeting,” Rutt said. “The liaison would talk to, again, I’m going to pick on Lou because I see his face here, they would go talk to him about financial issues and then come back to the whole council which would eliminate that committee hashing. They would make a recommendation straight to council, you go straight to council with the issue.”
Councilman Boyle expressed concerns that the new method would place stress on the staff.
“The other part of this is in a full gathering, that’s a quorum,” Councilman Boyle asked. “It’s going to need a recording. There is going to have to be support staff involved.” Whitfield stated that the staff was there to serve council and whatever time was needed, they would do what was necessary. He also pointed out that the only staff that would need to be at a workshop would be those who would need to present or answer questions from council.
“I hear both sides of the argument,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “I personally believe we rush ourselves through workshops and there’s always good discussion, good debate in those workshops. Also, excellent presenters and sometimes we rush them through the presentation. I think the idea of an off night where we can spend time discussing things in detail makes sense. Now the question is, who do we need in the workshop. Don’t you have to have a quorum in the workshop?”
Rutt explained that a quorum was only needed if there was to be a vote, which would not take place in a workshop, only at a council meeting.
“I am an official, what we signed up for is to represent our citizens,” Councilman Jason James said. “And to do that, we must thoroughly hear what comes before us. After throwing that down, we can then make a decision on information presented to us. Where we’re shortchanging the citizens, when we’re in the workshop, before council meetings, we’ve been doing one or two things that are cheating ourselves out of getting full information for discussion. All council members participate and bring their voices to the table, vetting the issue before us. We’re cutting that short or dragging it into the council meeting and they have to wait for the council meeting to start at 7:00 or we are starting at 7:30 or whenever. Building this out into a full-time job is not what I want to do.”
Councilman James continued saying that many subjects that came before council could benefit from more than one discussion and doing so at a workshop plus council could resolve that issue. Councilman Andy Fulton agreed with Councilman James, believing that it would allow all of council to be informed via a liaison or presenter. He questioned whether workshop meetings would need to be recorded. Rutt stated that because it was a public meeting, there would need to be notice and compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Mayor Campbell questioned the need for a recording, commenting that he had been at a meeting in Seaford that was not recorded. Rutt stated that he was unaware what policies Seaford had for meetings, but his advice was that any meeting where a notice was provided beforehand should be recorded.
“I think, Archie, you are kind of confusing things,” Councilman Culotta said. “With the types of workshops when we all get together versus a meeting in an informal setting. Committees work on something ahead of presenting it to council, or they could just be a repeat of an hour ago and operate at the power of the mayor. If you look at the mayor’s responsibilities in our charter, it is to run the meeting, set the agenda and address committee leaders, so that’s a power you have. If you decide to keep that power, that’s up to you, but if you decide that the committees are just another layer of meetings that are not necessary, that’s also up to you.”
Councilman James pointed out that the mayor would also appoint the liaison, so there would be no relinquishment of power. Mayor Campbell expressed concern about the requirement to record meetings. Councilman James and Rutt asked why there was a hesitancy to record meetings. Mayor Campbell explained that he really didn’t have an issue but was concerned about getting the necessary technology.
“Well, the issue is, they’re recorded,” Councilman Culotta said. “We have it right here, we’re using it right now. The manpower is transcribing that conversation to print. That’s what has to be coming in. However, I believe that is a necessary evil, to be transparent, open as a community leaders, that we are giving ourselves time on an alternate night to go over the issues.”
Councilwoman Katrina Wilson stated that since workshops are already recorded, there would be no additional work for staff. Councilman Dan Marabello asked how many council members liaisons could meet with a particular department without a FOIA problem. Rutt stated that no more than two was his recommendation. Councilman Marabello pointed out that one of the benefits of a workshop on separate nights was that council would avoid voting on something the same night as the workshop as sometimes discussion was limited due to time constraints. Whitfield said he would begin working with the mayor to appoint liaisons.
“Can I say something?” Terri Hudson, City Clerk, said. “I just want to let you know that if we do this, I will definitely need some help. Just to give you an example, the 14 pages of minutes in the packet for the last workshop was an hour and a half meeting. It took me weeks to do that. I mean, the bottom line, I can’t do this with another night added. Just wanted to let you kow I will need some help.”
Councilman James thanked Hudson for her input and stated that council needed to determine a way to shift to the new method in the most efficient way. He suggested that the minutes could be cut down to just the important matters discussed.
“We’re pretty much at, let’s say seven hours a month, of meetings now,” Hudson said. “And, in the past, on average, we might have a two hour meeting and that was the norm twice a month. And to do it, right, to transcribe conversations, you want to be able to go back and see what was said. A workshop is very difficult to do minutes because it is just constant back and forth. There’s not just one item and a vote taken. So, that’s easily three pages long. I talked to Mark about this the other day, Katrina has twice the number of meetings herself to come in and step in as Deputy Clerk than Christine used to have. We used to have just Board of Adjustment and Planning Commission with Board of Adjustment very, very sporadic. Now it’s every one and we’re talking hours. Just to give you some idea, I was all weekend working on those minutes until two o’clock in the morning. And that was one meeting and I’m still not done with council, that was just the workshop.”
Councilman James stated that it seemed council needed to address the problem and figure out a solution. Councilwoman Wilson pointed out that Hudson had been doing the job for many years and that it took a lot for her to say she needed help. Hudson stated that it is not just the minutes as the number of meetings that required minutes had also increased. She pointed out that there did not used to be an Executive Session at every meeting but now they seemed to be every council meeting. She also stated that she had three people in her office, and she was now down to two.
“Let me jump in here on minutes,” Rutt said. “Terri does minutes that are so detailed, and I know it takes you a lot of time. Under the Delaware code, this is what it says, “minutes shall include a record of those members present and a record by individual members of each vote taken and action agreed upon.” So, for example, tonight, you could have a minute that says there was a motion made for a personal services contract, who made the motion, who seconded it and the vote taken. Period. You don’t have to have that Mike said this or who said that. You don’t need that detailed information.”
Hudson explained that her concern was that information may not be in the minutes that could open the city up to a FOIA violation. Rutt stated that although he understood her concern, the Delaware code was clear that the only thing that needed to be in the minutes were the agenda items, if a vote was taken, who made the motion, who seconded, how everyone voted and who was in attendance at the meeting. The time the meeting started and ended should also be included. He also stated that putting too much information in the minutes could be dangerous.
“I can tell you that when you look at the minutes from December, they are not verbatim,” Hudson said. “But I still have to sit and listen to that four hours to make sure I do get what is needed for it to make sense to council two years from now or whatever.”
Councilwoman Wilson asked if it was possible for council to simply go and listen to the recording if they needed more detail and Hudson replied that they could do so at any time. However, she also pointed out that it was very time consuming. She felt it was defeating the purpose of the workshop if there was no written record.
“What Mr. Rutt has described very, very well regarding minutes of the council meeting and the second session, I get that in the workshop,” Councilman James said. “I understand that a workshop is more complicated, but here’s my thing. Council, we need to get together with this and do what we want to do, and I think it needs to be done for the sake of obligations to our citizens. We have to figure out how to do it, whether its additional help or whatever, and there is help needed. I don’t think any of us are afraid of recognizing it.”
Councilman Culotta supported Councilwoman Wilson’s point, that they had the technology to make recordings available. He asked Rutt if a recording placed on the city website immediately after the meeting that anyone could access at any time would constitute adequate minutes to which Rutt replied that it would. Councilman Culotta suggested that there was no longer a need to transcribe the minutes.
“We have to have a record showing who was present at the time of the meeting,” Hudson said. “It is not as simple as just putting up the recording. I mean we could use one of the companies out there that use the agenda and plug in the times. Or create the agenda so you click on a link that takes you to the recording section where the discussion occurred. But we would still need to have, it could be very minor, those present, the decisions made and so forth. We can’t totally depend on the recording.”
Rutt concurred with Hudson, stating that there had to be written record that included the motion made, who seconded and how the vote went. The electronic recording would be a backup if someone wanted more detailed information. He stated that other jurisdictions, including Sussex County, have the minimum minutes with the recording as a backup. Hudson again reiterated that, although that would work with a council meeting, workshops get into much more in-depth discussion.
“I mean, I can certainly just put the topic that was discussed, the beginning of the meeting time and the ending time,” Hudson said. “And then it is going to be on each of you to go back if you ever want to know what was said or if something comes out. Another good example, something comes out in the newspaper that says you said this or that when, in fact, you don’t believe you said that. That’s where it is time consuming. But that’s entirely up to you. I will do whatever you want. But those are just some guidelines on the workshops that’s most time consuming in minutes, not business meetings.”
Councilman Mike Boyle questioned what happened to an additional staff member that was supposed to be hired for the clerk’s office and Whitfield stated that budget reductions led to that position being cut from the budget for the current year. He did believe that it was time to revisit that position, however. Councilman Boyle pointed out that Hudson was asking for help so that she could get caught up, but also felt it may be time to make some adjustments.
“Terri’s been doing this the way it’s always been done,” Mayor Campbell said. “Now, we could change it. Like Mr. Rutt said, we just say, these are the people who attended. This is the motion, it passed, somebody wants to look it up, they go in and they listen to the recording. I mean, if I look around, how many of us went in and listened to the recording? I never have, has anyone else? So, no one has. We are creating something we don’t need to create. Terri can take shortcuts. This was the meeting. This was the vote; I mean as simple as that. Now, if somebody says “Oh, geez, the paper said I said this. I personally don’t think I did.” Okay, what I’m going to do is listen to a recording to see if I said that because I remember what I said. So, what I’m saying is if Terri takes the shortcut, it’s easy if someone needs to look at the recording. Other communities, they do that. Terri does the detail. So much detail”
Hudson stated that since it was January, it was a great time to change the way she did the minutes for meetings and workshops. She also stated that she wasn’t sure how many of the council members actually read the minutes, but staff did go back to them quite often. However, she was supportive of eliminating detailed minutes, reminding council that they would have to depend on the recordings being available for future years as well. Hudson also asked whether the staff reports needed to be included in the minutes. Councilman James stated that the staff reports were already in the packet, so he saw no need for them twice. She could simply refer to the packet which is also available online. Her final question was what council wanted to see in workshop minutes.
“I want to see who the presenter was, what they presented and if there was a vote or not,” Mayor Campbell said. Councilman James stated that there was no need to mention votes in those minutes as council was not permitted to take a vote in a workshop.
“What time the meeting starts, the attendees, the time it stops and a note that the recording is available,” Councilman Culotta said.
Mayor Campbell asked for a vote from council to which Rutt stated that, as Mayor, he could create an informal directive policy.
“I still want it on record that we all agreed,” Mayor Campbell said. Council voted unanimously for the change in meeting schedule and the new format for minutes. Mayor Campbell stated that the change would take effect immediately.
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