Mayor Nancy Vaughan has asked for advice on how to make the City Council meetings run smoother and be more productive.
Having attended the vast majority of City Council meetings since 1992, it would be shocking if I didn’t have some advice to offer.
The City Council with the exception of Councilmember Sharon Hightower seem to be in agreement that the current system of having one town hall type meeting and one business meeting a month is not working and something needs to be done.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Vaughan has always had the power to fix the meetings and she doesn’t need any help from Toto, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, the Wizard or even flying monkeys.
The power is in the gavel and like the ruby slippers it has immense power if used properly. Vaughan has never used the gavel that comes with her office and that is the heart of the problem.
The gavel is symbolic, but it is a symbol of power and the problem is that Vaughan refuses to use the gavel or her power as mayor to control the meetings and no one else can. Other councilmembers have tried, but Vaughan has allowed them to be shouted down by an unruly audience. Vaughan is the mayor, not just a city councilmember and she alone has the power to control the meetings.
With no one in control it doesn’t long for people to get out of hand. The crowd at the City Council meetings, is not dissimilar to the crowd at any other public event including sporting events. Most people are not there to disrupt things, but some are. Football stadiums and basketball arenas have strict rules about behavior and if you disobey them you are asked to leave.
Vaughan can solve the problems at the City Council meetings by announcing at the beginning of the meeting that anyone who shouts out from the audience or disrupts the meeting will be asked to leave and then enforcing it.
Enforcement has to apply fairly to everyone in the audience and it has to be swift. Just because someone was once an attorney they can’t be given special privileges to shout from their seat. People who are disrupting the meeting whoever they are have to be asked to leave. If they leave that’s the end of it. If they don’t then there are plenty of police officers around who can remove them and if they still refuse to leave place them under arrest.
At the first meeting Vaughan will likely have to have a couple of people removed. Because the people who come to disrupt the meetings have been having a lot of success, they won’t give up without testing Vaughan. But once it becomes clear that Vaughan is serious about enforcing the rules of the Council Chambers, then things will quiet down.
One of the reasons for going to one town hall type meeting and one business meeting every month was under the old scenario with 30 minutes of speakers from the floor at the beginning of every meeting, during the business part of the meeting even some of the rezoning discussions got out of hand with people shouting out from the audience.
Of course they did. Many of the people who come to a rezoning hearing are attending their first and often their only City Council meeting. They were sitting there for what was supposed to be 30 minutes of speakers from the floor but it had turned into an hour of people yelling at the City Council from the podium while their supporters yelled support from the audience. The people for the rezoning hearing had every reason to believe that was how things were done in the Council Chambers. It most likely appeared to them to be more like a football game than a golf tournament.
So when their time comes, they shout from the audience because in their minds that is the proper way to behave at a City Council meeting.
And that brings up another point. Greensboro is a city of nearly 300,000 people, having one business meeting a month isn’t enough. One of the reasons the panhandling issue took all spring and summer last year was that the Council could only act once a month. If the Council had been meeting twice a month as has every other City Council for at least the past 50 years, the issue would have been handled in half the time and that would have allowed the City Council to move on to other topics.
So the advice is take control of the meetings and go back to holding two business meetings a month with 30 minutes of speakers from the floor at the beginning of each, but hold it to 30 minutes.