Reduce Council Meetings
Last Tuesday the Council debated dropping three of their meetings around holidays with John Gehrig advocating to drop more than three meetings. Dennis Dare opposed Mr. Gehrig saying, “Our staff works 40 hours a week preparing this stuff and they look at their bosses that can’t come in for an hour a week,” he said. Let’s take a closer look. Do we really need 100-plus page opuses once a week?
Since 2010, when my life allowed me enough time to attend council meetings and periodically write on the council’s political actions, there have been weekly meetings, year in and year out. Every week there has either been a Monday evening meeting at 6 p.m. or a Tuesday work session at 1 p.m. in the afternoon. In addition, the council has met in closed session every Tuesday prior to the work session. To outside eyes the purpose of these closed-door meetings prior to the public meetings has garnered much criticism and might be described as grooming the material for the public meeting. Although sometimes minds are changed after public comments, often minds are made up in closed session and the ordinance votes along with public comments are just going through the motions. Many feel there should be no decisions made in closed session. Closed door decisions are thought unnecessary, surreptitious and offensive.
This was not always the case. Certainly, the Ocean City Charter only calls for one meeting a month or 12 meetings a year. No closed-door meetings are mentioned in the charter. Here is the rub, for each of these meetings, the staff prepares copious notes, often averaging 100 pages or more. Many of these notes are posted on the town’s website. Just the composition of these notes is expensive taking many man hours a week. Who knows what notes staff prepares for the council’s closed door meetings. It’s worse than that. I don’t think 20% of these expensive compositions deal with what would be generally considered public goods or put another way, traditional government business.
Also consider the council’s time spend reading all these copious and some would argue unnecessary notes as well as the huge savings if we went back to one public meeting a month as the charter requires. Maybe the council should limit the staff to 10 pages of notes per meeting.
It is not unpredictable that Councilman Dare, a lifelong public employee, is arguing to preserve additional meetings while Mr. Gehrig, who is at risk in private business, wishes to cut down further on the huge costs to hold all these otherwise unnecessary meetings.
Maybe we should go back to the charter requirement 12 meetings a year and limit staff notes to 10 pages. Think of all the money that would be saved. There would be no more backroom meetings either, allowing the council to focus on what is important and transparent, always in public view.
If an emergency comes up, the council can always call a private meeting, but it would not be a weekly scheduled event. This would allow the council time to assimilate each important issue, greatly increasing their ability to manage the staff. It often appears like the staff is managing the council. With meetings reduced and spaced and the council would have more control and much money would be saved for the town and its taxpayers.
At the very least the council should consider cutting the public meetings in half and eliminating closed sessions by going to one meeting every two weeks or 26 a year and requiring staff to keep their notes down to 10 pages or less. The savings just in staff labor I would estimate to be over $100,000 a year, but more importantly instead of the council being inundated by copious staff notes every Thursday it would give the council time to make important decisions and equally important decide what not to move ahead on.