Can robust dialogue fit within Rockland Council Chambers?

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 12:30pm

ROCKLAND — Newly elected Rockland City Council member Nate Davis is on a mission to generate robust conversation within the confines of formal Rockland City Council meetings. Though workshops and discussion-type sessions are more lenient and allow for more back-and-forth conversations, Davis views the regular meetings on the dais as too restrictive.

Currently, the Council has a twice-per-topic speaking limit for each councilor, as well as a clause restricting each speaker to 10 minutes or less on each subject. That 10-minute oration time may increase to 20 minutes. 

“As a member of the public for years, I’ve often been frustrated by what seems to be a lack of debate on the dais,” said Davis as he proposed an ordinance amendment during the Jan. 6 less-formal agenda-setting meeting, to loosen speaking restrictions. “My perception has always been that the rules have contributed to a culture of, well, lack of robust debate on the dais...during the regular meetings.”

Davis stated a belief that that lack of debate is partially a matter of culture and partially a matter of rules. Either way, he’s seeking an amendment to allow more free discussion and argument to flourish in the more formal meetings.

The current rules come from a time when councilors were less tolerant of each other’s opinions, and so it was necessary sometimes to shut people off, according to Councilor Ed Glaser. 

“I don’t know that anybody here has anything intelligent to say that would go on for 20 minutes on any particular topic,” he said. “So that may be more time than we need. But I do like the idea of trying to encourage a real debate where somebody has something to say, you can answer that. And then another councilor says something and you can answer that too. Rather than be stuck with just two chances to reply.”

Councilor Valli Geiger also spoke in favor of increasing the response limitation, especially for the sponsors of proposed bills. She spoke of the challenges and frustrations in her five years on council of not being able to respond when other councilors have questions, comments, opinions, misunderstandings, or are lacking factual basis for what they are saying.

Their misinformation is allowed to stand if the person with the knowledge can only respond twice. 

That lack of meaningful dialogue is picked up on by the public as well, according to Councilor Ben Dorr. Dorr stated that one of the criticisms is that minds are made up during private conversations away from City Hall, and long before any public discussion begins. 

“I think that feeling freer to discuss things in a more fluid back and forth kind of nature would work to dissuade some of that, and make people think – or give the impression more so – that we’re having a discussion and we haven’t all made up our minds about whatever the stuff is long before we walk in the door.”

Geiger then took a moment to clarify that no councilor is having closed-door meetings with two or more other councilors.

“I don’t want to leave the public with the impression that we’re all retiring, like the old days, to the Elks Club to decide what we are going to bring forward, and how we are going to vote,” she said. 

According to Rockland City Clerk Stuart Sylvester, exceptions to the two-limit speaking exist. If there is an amendment to the item that the council is discussing, a councilor can speak twice to the amendment. If the amendment passes, the councilor can speak twice to the item as amended. Questions to the attorney, to the city manager, to the mayor, or to other councilors do not count against that two-speaking limit. Points of order, things of that nature, do not count against that two-speaking limit.

Point of order is usually something to do with rules and procedure. A question is just a question about the item. A councilor proposes an amendment. Another councilor says well, what’s your reasoning for this. That would not count against that councilors two times per speaking. Speaking limitation is actual debate on the issue.

Another option that already exists for Council is the unanimous vote to extend speaking. If a debate is still in process, and someone wants to speak again after their initial allowance is capped, a vote can be placed. As long as the vote is unanimous, the conversation can continue. 

Mayor Lisa Westkaemper stated belief that no one would refuse to allow another to speak again.

For Westkaemper, the timing aspect seems like a nightmare. 

“The actual logistics of somebody speaks for ten seconds and then a minute later they speak for another 15 seconds and then they speak for a minute and a half,” she said. “I think it might even require hiring a clerk of some sort to come in and keep a log and tally, if it did get to the point where we needed to actually time them. I’m not particularly worried about this council this year, but it’s a consideration.”

Rockland City Councilors will vote on Rules and Procedures – Speaking Limitations, at the March 9, regular (formal) meeting.