Two years ago, when I started covering High Point City Council, an active citizen named Cynthia Davis gave me an invaluable piece of advice.
Davis was a fixture at city council meetings, and could be counted on to speak her mind about what she perceived as inequitable services to her lower-middle class West End neighborhood, budget priorities or council members’ various dealings with nonprofits that held a vested interest in city business. The city employees called to explain decisions and elected officials sitting on the dais often found it difficult to disguise their annoyance with her.
Davis not only attended every city council meeting, but most of the committee meetings. One committee holds particular significance. The finance committee meets at 4:30 p.m., an hour before the official city council meeting on the first and third Monday of the month. The committee typically meets in the city manager’s conference room, but sometimes convenes in what is known as “the fishbowl” on the third floor of City Hall.
Davis’ advice: “Come 15 minutes early so you can get a seat.”
Of the four standing committees that vet decisions before they reach the full council for a final vote, finance is preeminent; its function is to review any proposal to spend public funds. Davis likes to call finance the “meeting before the meeting.” For all intents and purposes, the actual decisions are made around the table in the boardroom, with council members hashing out arguments and sharing contextual information. When the “meeting before the meeting” concludes, members walk across the hall and take their seats at the dais in council chambers, where they take an official vote before the public on agenda items that they have basically already approved, typically with little comment or public explanation.
While only four council members are assigned to finance and get an official vote, all nine typically show up for the meetings, and the discussion often veers off agenda. The “meeting before the meeting” gives members an opportunity to feel out potential alliances, test each other’s wills and negotiate compromises without the embarrassment of public observation. In other words, it provides the context to explain public actions.
The finance committee meetings are officially public — even posted on the city’s website — but members of staff typically occupy all the seats along the wall. Good luck finding a place to sit if you’re late, or even right on time.
In November, Cynthia Davis won her first election to city council. Now, she’s not just a thorn in the side of the political establishment. And as a member of the finance committee, she holds a seat at the table in the “meeting before the meeting.” But the practice still rubs her the wrong way.
“We should hear from the people before we make decisions that affect them,” Davis said. “I think it’s important that people speak up and let council members know that they want to be part of the process. We should have ample seating, so they don’t have to stand in a doorway, or have to pull up a chair, where they can only hear half of what’s said.”
Even if the meetings are officially open to the public, the lack of seating sends exactly the opposite message. While the meetings meet the legal requirements of transparency, the actual practice falls far short. The custom of holding meetings in inaccessible boardrooms seems to confuse even elected officials. Councilman Jim Davis mistakenly told two city council candidates that a special meeting about the search for a new city manager last August was closed to the public. The city attorney caught the mistake, and the candidates showed up later in the meeting after someone phoned them to say they could attend after all.
Cynthia Davis said she’s asked Mayor Bill Bencini to move the standing committee meetings into council chambers, where there’s plenty of room for all citizens. As she notes, staff occupy the first two rows during the regular meeting, and they can easily come to the podium to address council. And the finance committee could be folded into the regular meeting, saving the trouble of walking across the hall.
So far, Davis said, the mayor has resisted her call for transparency. Knowing her, she’ll persist and refuse to let the issue drop. Hopefully, she’ll win Jim Davis, who chairs the finance committee, over to her cause, along with Alyce Hill and Chris Williams, who serve with them.
Put aside for a moment that, unlike in Greensboro and Winston-Salem, High Point City Council meetings are not televised or streamed over the internet (Winston-Salem even streams its committee meetings). Bringing High Point city government into the 21st Century would incur a cost, but democracy is worth it.
In contrast, there’s no cost to taking committee meetings out of the shadows and into council chambers.
A notice on the city council’s standing committees states, “All committee meetings are open to the public, and interested parties are encouraged to attend and participate.”
Let’s take them at their word. We should show up en masse and make it impossible to conduct public business in the boardroom. It’s time to crash the system by actually using it.
See you at City Hall, next Monday at 4:30.