Post #388: Time management and the 8 PM Town Council meeting start time

One of the oddest parts of the 9/16/2019 Town Council work session was a discussion about changing Town Council meeting times to 7:30 (or perhaps earlier).  I found it odd for several reasons, but mostly because there was so much importance attributed to starting the meetings earlier.  But no mention of any other sort of time management strategy.  (Which, in my opinion, these Town Council meetings desperately need — see the final section of this posting.)

With this Town government, when I see something like that — seemingly irrational behavior, yet with great emphasis — it raises a red flag.  I have no firm answer for what might be driving this.   Critically important to start earlier, no need to discuss any other aspect of time management.  That’s odd, to say the least.  It set off my nonsense detector.

Let me take a closer look.


Vienna Town Council meetings have started at 8 PM for the last half-century.

I couldn’t find records any older than that.  And, fact is, the current Town charter isn’t much older than that.  But I can document an 8 PM start time back to 1966.  Detail follows.

I can check Town Council agendas, on-line, for about the last decade.  That’s on this page on the Town’s website.  And the start time for the earliest meeting recorded there was, in fact, 8 PM.  Spot checking a few dozen meetings between then and now, it seems like 8 PM has been the start time at least since August 2010.

In the press, here’s mention of an 8 PM Town Council meeting (.pdf) from 2003.  Here’s notice of an 8 PM Town Council meeting in 2002, for the creation of the Vienna dog park.

Heck, because Vienna maintains an archive of all the old town newsletters, you can just search that, on this Town of Vienna webpage.  I see from one issue that the January 1981 Town Council meeting began at … 8 PM.

The Town began monthly publication of the newsletter in January 1969.  The February 1969 issue is particularly interesting, not just for the 8 PM start time, but because of this little item:

Source:  Town of Vienna, VA Newsletter, Volume 69-2, February 1969.

So, apparently, the issue of meetings running late is far from a new one.  And half a century ago, the Town tried meeting four times monthly, instead of twice a month.  

In fact, the 8 PM start time was such a standard for us that it’s actually written into Vienna Town statute.  This is from the Town charter, accessible here:  They can resolve to meet at other times, but the default has been 8 PM since (as I read it, at least) 1969 (emphasis mine).  That’s the last time this section appears to have been updated.

The Town Council shall meet in regular session on the first and third Mondays of each month at 8:00 p.m., or at such other times as may be fixed by resolution; provided that at least one regular meeting per month shall be held as required by section 4.2 of the Charter. When the first or third Monday of a month falls on a legal holiday, the council may by motion postpone or advance the regular meeting scheduled for such a holiday, and notice of such postponement or advancement, together with the substitute date selected, shall be published by such means as the council may select.

(Code 1962, app. 3; Code 1969, § 2-14; Ord. of 9-7-1965)

But because the Town newsletter was quarterly (at best) in the earlier years, the first mention of an 8 PM Town Council meeting is the April 1966 newsletter.  Oddly enough, the Town Council of the day was holding a public hearing on rewriting the Town’s zoning ordinance.

Source:  Town of Vienna, VA Newsletter, Volume 66-2, April 1966.

Upshot:  Looks like 8 PM has been the Town Council meeting start time for at least the past 53 years.   More than half a century.

(As an aside, that archive of Town newsletters beats anything that you could put in a time capsule.  Check the March 1961 Town newsletter, when Vienna was seriously considering dissolving the Town (“surrendering the Town charter”) and returning to being just a part of Fairfax County.   The November 1961 issue reminds citizens to pay the poll tax and register to vote.   It’s definitely a slice of history.)


Hmmm

I was going to put in a trite summary of all the public trauma and tragedy we’ve seen since 1966, but I suspect that most of you can fill that in better yourselves.  And throughout that period, Vienna Town Council meetings started at 8 PM.  And nobody saw fit to change that.

And now, after half a century, some Town Council members want the meetings to start earlier.  But introduce no other time management strategies for Town Council meetings.  I can’t quite make that fit together, logically, on its own.

 


Time management strategies for Town Council and other Vienna public meetings.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

I served as staff to a U.S. legislative-branch advisory committee for close to a decade.  I’m going to draw on that experience to suggest a handful of changes, listed in order of my best guess as to time saved.

1  Elocution lessons, or, at least, self-awareness training.

Some members of our elected and appointed boards are good about getting their thoughts together, expressing themselves with a few clear, complete sentences, (subject-verb-object), and then stopping.  But many of them are not.  And those who are not can take up an extraordinary amount of time making even the simplest point.

I am acutely aware of this for two reasons.

First, I have been recording many meetings, often writing up an “index” to what was said.  I have had to listen to some meetings word-for-word.  It’s excruciating.  Not for every speaker, but definitely for some of them.  For some, you just find yourself praying for a full stop — an actual end to what passes for a sentence in their oral presentation.

Second, there’s no saint like a reformed sinner.  One of the low points in my professional career was having to read a literal transcript of what I had said during my public presentations before my committee.  In my mind, I was a model of succinctness.  In fact, my presentations were just so much verbal diarrhea.  A few rounds of that, and eventually it dawns on even the most stubborn person that thinking before you speak is probably a good idea.  And your presentations then use a lot fewer words.

My suggestion is that the Town hire a transcriptionist for a few meetings, and ask Council members to read the literal transcript of what they said in those meetings.  They will be appalled.  I guarantee it.  If they have any sense, just that little bit of feedback will make them think twice about getting to the point, with the fewest words possible.  And this will save considerable meeting time.

2  Add time estimates (i.e., expected start and end times), on the agenda, for individual agenda items.  For major items, couple that with timed opening statements for Town Council members.

And I would add a nominal end time for every meeting, per the agenda, of no later than 11 PM.  Putting estimated times on the meeting agenda, and fitting all the items into that 11 PM deadline (on paper, at least), forces people to understand that time is short.  And for a crowded or disputed agenda, you are forced to realize that you have more on the agenda than can reasonably be discussed in three hours.  You realize you are under time pressure.  It puts some time pressure on the meeting, compared to the present situation where there is no explicit time pressure.  And if running late is the problem, then time pressure is exactly what you want.

Right now, discussion of agenda items proceeds more or less at random.  All the happy stuff (Scouts, sports teams, proclamations) takes however long it takes.  Then, for the business portion of the meeting, the Mayor calls on council members to speak, in turn.  Each member of Town Council speaks, at length, about whatever they want to speak about, relevant to that item.  There is some occasional back-and-forth.  And, in my experience, there typically is little in the way of a defined summary or set of action items, for items tabled for future discussion.  Otherwise, items requiring a vote are then voted on.

That undirected approach may be a pleasant and polite way to do business, but it’s not an efficient way to do business.  For one thing, the same issue will be brought up several different times, by several different Town Council members.  For another, you do not have the full scope of issues relevant to the entire Town Council until after the last Town Council member has spoken.  Finally, Town Council members are under no pressure to make a short, succinct statement of what matters most to them.

An alternative method is to give every Town Council member (say) one minute to state, briefly, their initial position and most significant concerns about the agenda item in question.  Only after that does the individual leading the meeting produce a list that summarizes the N issues that have been brought up.  The meeting leader then walks through those items, summarizing the positions on each item, calling for discussion, and attempting to reach consensus where possible.  This way, discussion only proceeds after the full scope of all relevant issues is on the table, and each item is discussed, all together, at one point in time.

I can already tell you which Town Council members will have no trouble getting to the point in 60 seconds or less (Springsteen).  And which, by contrast, are likely to find this a hardship.

3  Consent agenda.

This item was brought up by Councilman Majdi.  It’s a convenient way to get rid of routine business of the Town Council, rather than take the time to vote individually on each non-controversial item.  All items that all Town Council members believe can be passed without further discussion are packaged into a single item, and (as I understand it) if that item passes unanimously, each individual item is deemed to have passed.

4:  Committee-of-the-whole discussions. 

At some level, I think that working under fairly rigid parliamentary rules makes these meetings last longer when there are major agenda items to be discussed.  Sometimes, to get to the bottom line, what you want is a free flow of ideas.  But instead, what you get is a clean, one-person-at-a-time presentation, because that’s what’s in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order.

My vague understanding is that at least some legislative bodies can temporarily get around the more rigid restrictions of Robert’s Rules of Order by declaring themselves to be acting as a committee of the whole, and working under an agreed-upon less restrictive set of rules applying to committees.  At the end of which time, they then go into regular session and vote, as the legislative body, not as the committee.

Probably seems nuts to most people, I guess.  But it’s just a legal way to dodge the rigid formalism of the rules for the legislative body (the Town Council), get the discussion done expeditiously, and still take legal votes as the Town Council.