Saturday, March 30, 2013

Same old gambit, new "kitchen"

One assignment I had in college was to attend a local government meeting and make a report on the proceedings.  At that time, Newfield Council meetings met in the old fire hall, which did double duty as a place for town events like Kiwanis, weddings, birthdays etc since it included a kitchen.  The meeting I chose to observe was sparsely attended including one member of the press.  I stood out, of course, being about 19 years old and was queried by the Mayor as to why I was there.  I explained and since there was no reason I couldn't be there, they went ahead with the meeting.

However, I observed a curious behavior.  Whenever there it was time to have a serious discussion, one of the members would suggest a smoke/rest room break and the Mayor and Council would all file into the kitchen, making sure the door and pass through areas were closed off.  I could hear muffled voices and often the break lasted way past 10 minutes.

At the conclusion of the break, the Mayor and Council would re-take their seats and call the meeting back to order.  Then, someone would make a motion whose meaning was clear to them but obscure to the spectators.  For instance, a motion would be made to "amend ordinance xyz in the manner previously discussed".  A vote would be held and lo and behold, the motion would pass.

I called this so not transparent method of governance, the "kitchen manuever".  I don't know if they did it all the time or just because some young woman was attending their meeting and they didn't want her to report substantively on what they did.

I thought this kitchen gambit was long gone since the old fire hall was replaced by a combined municipal offices, senior center, fire station, and police station.  It turns out I was wrong.  It just takes on a new character when there is no longer a need for a kitchen.

Thursday, March 28th, the Council held a special meeting.  Word got out that the purpose of the meeting was to "table" the controversial ordinance regarding the fire company.  I hoped that was true so I attended along with a few other spectators, since the meeting was held at 4:30pm when many residents are still at work.

When I arrived, I found a copy of the agenda.  It listed that they intended to vote on tabling the ordinance, giving its number and name, and that they would be voting on an increase to the budget.  There was no mention of what the budget increase was for.  The meeting was opened for remarks by the public, and, silly me, I didn't ask what the budget increase was for as I thought I would hear as they discussed and voted on it. 

By the way, all public comment occurs before they transact business never during business as you see on old TV shows.  In other words, the Mayor/Council setup is not a town meeting form of government.

Now, you can guess what happened, the Council had already invoked the kitchen gambit via phones, cell phones, or email, and all that happened was a motion to increase the budget was made.  Someone on Council said what I quote approximately "You all know this is a safety issue", which was answered affirmatively by all.  Then, the motion passed.  I have no idea what they voted on.  It could have been related to the fire company ordinance or something completely different.  I have no idea, nor did any of the spectators around me.

Fortunately, the Council also passed a motion to table the fire department ordinance.  I will remain vigilant about going to meetings - special or regular - because they could bring the ordinance back for a final vote at any time, especially if they believe the public no longer cares.  I guess I am almost as naive as that 19 year old student I was in the 60's.  Sigh.

2 comments:

planetmike said...

Does your state have Sunshine laws? Check this site: http://sunshinereview.org/index.php/State_sunshine_laws to see what records you can access to. It's crazy what your city/town is doing to the fire department.

Maggie the Messmaker said...

Thanks, I will check out the site. I can get paper records of former meetings for $5 a meeting. But, as I reported, the whole story doesn't come out a meeting.