Within a short time after getting elected, I met with the law director to get a foothold on the applicable public and municipal law. Now, I went to law school, I loved it, I'm a geek that way and so I do find pretty much everything fascinating about public and municipal law. I could spend days and days and days learning about it - and given my job as city council member, I guess I will. Happily.
But one of the things I learned that was most fascinating to me was something which maybe should have been implicitly understood or known, but I didn't know it and I still have a ways to go to really understand it. I know and kind of understand why this rule exists, but I definitely am conflicted about it.
Alright already - what am I talking about?
In theory, for the purposes of the public being able to see what the people they've elected are doing with the money they all pay to the city to keep the city going, open meetings are the only way to go. Of course. Right?
Well - here's the thing: so, if you have at least four of the seven council members together talking city business, you have to have an open meeting, with minutes being taken and resulting from it and so on.
What is my beef with this, me who loves and adores and embraces social media and all kinds of forms of communication that are public or can be accessed by the public?
Work. Just the simple flow of work. I get that the public has a right to and has an interest in observing us, hearing us, knowing, learning, arguing with whatever we might discuss or say related to legislating. But the thing is, in business, they get to meet and grapple. In families, we meet and grapple. But in the public service, in government, you can only meet and grapple, if you have a quorum, in public.
My love for all things related to engagement and communicating are absolutely colliding with this notion that I can't gather 'round other council members to know what they're thinking, except in small numbers or at one of the two scheduled public meetings - Road & Safety/Finance & Planning, or the main monthly City Council meeting.
For me, this begs the question of whether we should be meeting more often. But it also makes me wonder, from a completely academic perspective, about how we get any work done. I mean, in some ways, this kind of an expectation forces us to act more independently during the times when we are not meeting - which is most of the time. If we can't communicate as a group, then we have to think about issues as they come up in between the public meetings, on our own. We can call each other up and ask questions, but it's not the same.
Some cities have work sessions in addition to council meetings. I don't know the history of meetings in Pepper Pike City Council.
Is the bottom line a question of how we're doing in getting done what we understand City Council Members to be charged with getting done? And if we're not getting it done in the two meetings, do we need more (which of course costs more money to do)? Or do we work to find other ways to convey to each other what we're thinking about?
I think the most problematic issue in thinking about this topic is this: without any desire or intention whatsoever to leave anyone out of the process (i.e., the public), it would be so much more efficient to be able to meet or talk as a group at various times. But the public nature of our work defines the conditions under which we are expected to work (publicly) - and that in itself imposes restrictions on how efficient we can be.
How much inefficiency in working are we willing to put up with in the name of doing all work in public? Are we by definition not allowed to put efficiency up very high, because our system shows a preference for openness that trumps efficiency?
How do you see it?