A modest proposal: restraining Council repetition

logo 9th in a series of modest proposals logo

Bill Scheirer is an economist who grew up in Bethlehem, spent 40 years in DC, and retired here in 2003. He is a life member of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City and was on the Mayor’s Task Force for the City of Bethlehem Comprehensive Plan, Zoning Ordinance, and Zoning Map.

Gadfly:

As I recall. there are 15 council rules, number 12 of which is that Robert’s Rules applies in all other instances. I would like to propose a Council Rule 16, which would read as follows:

“A councilmember may not state the same fact, opinion, argument, or representation more than twice in the same speech, nor more than three times in the same meeting.”

Councilmembers will find, with this rule modifying Robert’s Rules, that meetings will be shortened not insignificantly and that other councilmembers and members of the press and the public will be more attentive to what they are saying.

Bill
Gadfly #2

Do you suppose that this rule is aimed at any one Council member in particular?

A modest proposal: “press conferences” for the Mayor and City Council

(8th in a series of modest proposals)

“There seems to be no mechanism to receive answers to questions.”

So transparency, accountability, visibility, and their synonyms roll easily off the various political platforms — especially at election time.

But we’re missing something here.

It’s something I noticed right away about City meetings before I was even Gadfly.

Interaction . . . Feedback . . . Response > true communication.

I remember pre-Gadfly likening public commentary at City Council meetings to something out of a Kafka story — petitioners speaking to a silent wall of inscrutable judges.

Happily I now feel I know our Mayor and Council members much better, so the impersonality I felt then in those early days is a good deal mitigated.

But there is still no interaction . . . feedback . . . response > true communication.

Like, for instance, to Gadfly #1’s question at the last Council meeting. Or to yours truly Gadfly00’s questions about Polk Street.

Not that the Mayor and Council members couldn’t respond at meetings. There is no “law” against such. The Harrisburg Open Records folk tell me there could be response — but most public agencies simply choose not to respond to public commentary at meetings.

So “we” can ask questions or make statements that invite, need, or demand response, but “they” remain quiet.

Gadfly gets it. He’s had administrative experience. He knows what its like on the other side of the Head Table.

City Council meetings are basically business meetings. Doing the business is the primary purpose of the meetings.

So we need something else.

What is that something Gadfly asks himself.

More and more Gadfly thinks we need something like a periodic press conference with the Mayor and Council or perhaps separately.

Now some of you younger followers might glaze over, ignorant of what a press conference is — since the words have been disappeared from the Trumpster White House dictionary.

Can you imagine Nicole, Sara, Doug, and the others asking the Mayor and/or Council members freewheeling questions on topics of current interest in a give-and-take format?

Probably not — the newspapers are declining in various ways and not interested in or capable of that kind of coverage anymore.

If the Mayor and/or Council would volunteer to appear at a “press conference” (we’d need to find another name), say once a month, could we find a neutral, objective, respected, experienced, journalistic figure (a Bill-White-type figure or Bill himself) to act as facilitator/interlocutor in a format that would enable expansion on topics of interest and concern?

Out there right now at this very moment, perhaps even reading this, are people who are planning to run for Mayor. Can we ask them to think about putting some muscle and foundation under the campaign rhetoric transparency promise.

Firm proposals to achieve transparency.

In any event, Gadfly’s latest modest proposal is that we institute “press conferences” for the Mayor and Council.

Clarifying the development process

(Latest post on such topics as Neighborhoods, Southside, Affordable Housing)

You know what you need to do:
Bethlehem Residents for Responsible Development: Seth Moglen (moglen@lehigh.edu)
Mayor Donchez: rdonchez@bethlehem-pa.gov
City Council: c/o cityclerk@bethlehem-pa.gov
Morning Call letter to editor: https://www.mcall.com/opinion/readers-react/mc-letter-to-the-editor-ngux-htmlstory.html

Today is recycle day.

Gadfly would take you back to two of his “modest proposal” posts (for the full thread of modest proposals, see under Topics on the sidebar).

Both have to do with Gadfly’s hunger for information.

In “The more the merrier,” Gadfly modestly proposed “that the half-dozen or so ‘independent’ Authorities be requested to attend at least two City Council meetings per year, once in the first six months and once in the second, to report on current activities and future plans and to receive comments and questions from both Council members and the general public.”

And, building on that idea, in “An even merrier more,” Gadfly modestly proposed “that each [City] department head come to a meeting twice a year, once in the first half and once in the second, and briefly tell ‘us’ what’s happening in that department. . . . Our Council meetings are ‘live’ and on video now. We could announce a schedule of such guest appearances – ‘coming attractions’ — and promote them in a modest way. People with interest in certain areas could be alerted to attend or tune in or catch up later.”

Gadfly was thinking about these two proposals — aimed at greater exchange of information — aimed at greater transparency, visibility, accountability — in regard to what he called the “teachable moment” when the Mayor responded to the letter from the South Bethlehem Historical Society.

The Mayor said, ” I also hope you understand that there is a process that each developer has to go through. . . . There are various City departments, boards, authorities[,]*** and commissions that assist with development,” etc., etc.

“I also hope you understand” — well, not necessarily.

Lou James and the board of the South Bethlehem Historical Society have been around for a long time. Maybe they need no tutorial.

But Gadfly thinks most of “us” do need one.

To Gadfly — who sees himself as your average citizen — the development process is pretty much shrouded in mystery.

Here’s what Gadfly means by a “teachable moment” in this case.

This would have been a good opportunity to lay out and walk us through the generic development process in detail.

Gadfly has so many questions.

Where does a project start — with a developer or with the City? Are there conversations, arguments, negotiations over aesthetic as well as technical matters? What give-and-take goes on? What kind of projects are sought, what turned away? Who are the key people at the key junctures in the process? What sticky points arise, and how do they get reconciled? How much control does the City have? Where does “history” get on the table? That kind of thing.

A presentation about the steps or phases in a generic development process would be illuminating and would be sure to stimulate questions leading to a better understanding of how we get what we get.

Gadfly can see this as a valuable example of a department presentation at a City Council meeting he modestly proposes above.

*** Prof Gadfly — Conan the Grammarian to several decades of Lehigh students — is a proponent of the Oxford comma and just had to insert it here.

 

A Modest Proposal: evening “open door” hours by Hizzoner the Mayor

(7th in a series of modest proposals)

Did Gadfly mention spare time?

Retirees are pretty busy.

That will surprise some people.

I keep an old-fashioned paper calendar. None of that electronic device stuff, no sir.

And I cross out entries as they get done. And then cross off the day when it is done. An old trick learned at the knee of Ben Franklin, the master of organization. Gives a sense of accomplishment.

calendar

I didn’t get yesterday crossed off, you will note.

If you look closely, you will see “open door?” still visible.

That’s a reference to Mayor Donchez’s open door days.

Did you know about these? The Mayor has “open door” days once a month. I’m not sure they are well publicized. In fact, it look me a while to find that link above just now.

I wanted to go. In fact, I’ve wanted to go in each of the 9 months I’ve been a gadfly. Something has always come up. And I was too busy yesterday again.

I’ve wanted to go mainly out of curiosity. To see who goes and how many. One hopes people would take advantage.

Gadfly is all about participation.

And I’m sure it’s fun for the Mayor.

It’s a good thing I didn’t try to go, however. Silly Gadfly had the day wrong anyway. The open door day in July was July 8 — Monday. I would have been disappointed.

But as I am about to cross off July 9 from my calendar and move “open door” to August 12, when I will try again, I remember a comment from a follower who wished not to post.

She wondered why the Mayor didn’t have hours in the evening, when more people might be available to take advantage of the open door.

After all, the Mayor is asking City committees to move out of the afternoon hours into the evening for precisely the same reason.

The “open door” policy is a very good thing, and Gadfly’s modest proposal, with tip o’ the hat to faithful follower, is that evening hours would be even more of a good thing.

And the Mayor might review how the opportunity is publicized.

Gadfly is cookin’ another modest proposal along these same lines that might stir more reaction. Stay tuned.

A Modest Proposal: regarding Council oversight of hot-button City committees

(6th in a series of modest proposals)

So Gadfly went to the Bethlehem Parking Authority meeting last Wednesday April 24. Perhaps more on the substance of that meeting later.

The meeting was at 4PM. Gadfly recently reported that at a Planning Commission meeting both Diane Szabo Backus and Paige Van Wirt made what we might call “vigorous proposals” [ha! not modest!] for later meeting times to accommodate the large number of citizens who work at that hour and are unable to attend such meetings. And Gadfly was later able to report that the Mayor heard those vigorous proposals and has pledged to require later times across the board in City committees for 2020.

A solid blow for citizen participation. Another shout-out to Backus-Van Wirt-Donchez.

There are many City Authorities, Boards, and Commissions. Take a look. Made up almost entirely of resident volunteers. Gadfly doesn’t know exactly, but he guesses the volunteers probably number in the vicinity of 125. A small army.

That’s a lot of people the Mayor has to round up. I mean, I’m not sure that people are thronging the Mayor during “Open Door” days and clamoring for such positions. He no doubt has to recruit. Though I hope we never see the day when he has to set up a card table in a mall and hawk for warm bodies.

Gadfly goes to a lot of these meetings. And can say without hesitation that there are a lot of wonderful people doing wonderful work. Good for the Mayor, good for the great people volunteering.

The Mayor nominates resident members, Council approves. Most of the time the approvals are pro forma. But there was one significant denial recently, probably for conflict of interest, a person serving on two closely related bodies.

Approvals should not be pro forma, especially for certain committees, and the Parking Authority is one such group. The Parking Authority was a center of controversy in the latter half of 2018 as 70+ posts in the Gadfly parking thread will attest (see the link on the sidebar).

Gadfly could not tell and had suspicions about the range and quality of Board member involvement. The New St. Garage, the Polk Garage, the Desman Parking Study, the conflict with Council, etc., etc. — strangely to Gadfly, it’s almost impossible to tell from the Board minutes that these things were going on much less that there were “hot” public “issues” about them. The Authority then had a powerful, involved solicitor and a long-standing Chair — Gadfly wondered if there was any debate or discussion at all, wondered what the role, if any, of the appointed members was.

For we must depend on the Board members to be our “voice” in Authority decisions. Gadfly would like to make sure that they are.

Reviewing minutes, Gadfly saw no evidence of conflict, dissent, alternative opinion; Gadfly is not sure that he saw a motion that truly originated with a Board member or new business that originated with a Board member. And if it were not for routine responses to “asks” by the chair for a motion and a second, you might not even know who is on the Board. Attendance at a few meetings suggested that the Authority authority resided in the Executive Director, the solicitor, and the Board chair.

Which is not to say that hot issues weren’t ever aired and that all Board members were not heavily involved. But the minutes — basically the only official public record of what transpired — don’t reveal much in that respect.

When those Board members come up for re-appointment, on what basis will Council make its oversight decision? Evidence of the quantity and quality of their participation and contributions in deliberations about non-trivial and non-routine matters — as attested to in the minutes — should be a prime body of evidence.

At the April 24 meeting, Gadfly suggested to the Parking Authority Board that the minutes be improved to at least capture the flavor of all viewpoints in discussion, that votes that are not unanimous clearly indicate who the yays and nays are, and he suggested to the members that they be sure not only that they contribute but that their contributions are detailed in the minutes. If they want to be re-appointed, that is.

You can hear Gadfly talk about this as an aspect of his “passion for public participation in city matters” (soooo pompous is your Gadfly!) here:

My modest proposal is that Council let the Mayor know that proposals for re-appointment of members of “hot” committees, commissions, and boards should include — in addition to resumes*** — specific and substantive evidence of the quality and quantity of member contributions as attested in the minutes.

At the last City Council meeting Backus made the interesting point that since such Board members are appointed by elected officials, they too are in a sense elected. And the public needs accountability, especially on the “hot” committees, and will call for it from Council when re-appointment time comes around.

*** Instructive here is the good dialogue about oversight initiated by Councilwoman Van Wirt and joined by Council President Waldron and Business Manager Evans sitting in for the Mayor at the January 15 Council meeting and recorded in the minutes on pp 11-12. But for re-appointments, Gadfly is suggesting more than resumes and contact info. There should be evidence of performance.

 

 

Addendum to “dressing up the address”

(5th in a series of modest proposals)

Regarding Gadly’s last modest proposal:

So probably at 8AM this very moment I just  punched the “Send” button and perhaps the very moment you might be reading this, the Mayor is beginning his “State of the City” address to the Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast at Arts Quest.

Gadfly suggested a different venue and etc., etc. for this annual event.

As usual Gadfly enters these modest proposals on the record during public comment at Council meetings — and did so Tuesday night. It so happens the mayor was not there.

CM Reynolds took up the idea and suggested to Business manager Evans who was sitting in for the Mayor that this talk could be given during the Mayor’s report time at Council meetings.

Yes, it could.

But a couple things that CM Reynolds said struck me as not so good.

CM Reynolds said — paraphrasing now — 1) the talk is basically a bunch of slides and 2) it wouldn’t take too much time and require a different preparation. I hope I have that right.

Now that didn’t strike me quite right.

It made the “State of the City” event sound perfunctory to me.

I said last time that I’m not a big spectacle kind of guy (another wink-wink to you-know-who-you-are). And I rather dislike the wind-demon politicians who are always talking or who are all-talk. Especially if they are also no-action.

But I must admit that there are times that I want, that I need some rah-rah.

And an event called “State of the City” feels that way to me.

Respectfully, one time a year I’d like to have the Mayor throw away the slides and the stop-watch and light us up a bit.

“it’s time to rethink how to share the news”

Although she’s lived in Bethlehem for almost 20 years, Carol Burns’ new career as a freelance marketer is giving her an opportunity to “discover” her hometown. She volunteers for several arts-related organizations, and her newest adventure is dipping her toe into local politics and community organizations.

Thanks Gadfly — agree 100%! I came across last year’s [the Mayor’s “State of the City] address (by accident/happenstance) on the city website, and I was stunned to learn all the news he shared (I see as I’m typing this that you also have it linked on your blog :).

I’m guessing the venue/audience was changed to the Chamber in response to low interest/low attendance, but I agree it’s time to rethink how to share the news. Can we think, “get a better quality video” and make available to view, maybe at the Library — or “get a decent audio” and make it a podcast (hey, the Library has a new set-up for making podcasts). Either/both could be available on the city’s website and social (in fact, all the city departments’ different social accounts should push it out, for better distribution). And — radical thought — include a QR code to link to audio/video with a short article in the next (boring/boring-looking) city newsletter.

Carol