by Jordan Green
A semi-secret committee meeting is undergoing a transformation.
Starting in March, members of High Point City Council will no longer meet on Monday afternoons before the official city council meeting at 5:30 p.m. to review finance items. Another significant change has already been made.
At its organizational meeting in December, the new council scrapped a practice instituted under former mayor Bernita Sims of structuring finance as a “committee of the whole” that includes all nine council members. The new council reverted to a conventional committee size of four members.
Under the previous council, all nine members of council typically met before the official meeting in a small conference room in the city manager’s suite to discuss finance items, often veering off the agenda. Matters that would later come up for an official vote received frank and vigorous debate, and consensus was hammered out in unofficial “straw” votes. By the time council members walked across the hall to council chambers and took their seats at the dais in front of dozens of citizens, the vote was already a foregone conclusion. Items were approved with little public discussion.
Many, including Councilwoman Cynthia Davis, criticized the practice as lacking in transparency. Davis, a former chair of the city’s planning & zoning commission and longtime monitor of city government, was elected to serve on city council in November.
In separate votes on Feb. 16, the council approved unanimous resolutions to move the finance committee to the second and fourth Thursdays of the month, and to move a city manager’s briefing, previously held on Thursdays, to the first and third Mondays. The swap was prompted by another structural change — the introduction of a consent agenda to speed non-controversial items through the process. The High Point council’s adoption of the consent agenda brings the city into line with neighboring Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
On the whole, Davis is happy with the changes.
“I think by moving the meeting from Monday to Thursday — not that I would discourage council members who aren’t members of the committee from attending the meetings — there will be more dialogue on the dais,” she said. “Council members who didn’t attend the finance committee meeting will have to ask questions about the finance agenda items. I hope it will bring some transparency to the dais. I’m not a big fan of consent agendas, but you can ask to have items pulled for discussion. I’d like to see more items pulled for discussion because that’s what the public wants. They don’t want us to just vote on items without discussion.”
The new finance committee schedule will take effect on March 12.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis, who chairs the finance committee, proposed the change after Cynthia Davis expressed frustration about seeing consent agenda items on finance’s agenda without advance notice. Jim Davis said he had previously asked new City Manager Greg Demko to get finance items to the committee earlier so members would have adequate time to review them before the meeting. He added that the city manager told him it would be hard to get contracts in particular any earlier. Committee members would be hard pressed to table contracts because it would hold up important city business. After conferring with Demko and City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle, Davis said he decided it would make more sense to hold the finance committee on Thursday — four days ahead of the full council meeting.
“By having the [finance committee] meeting on Thursday, we’ll make a recommendation and the other council members won’t come on that day, so they’ll have more questions,” Jim Davis said, echoing Cynthia Davis’ sentiment. “I think that might lengthen our council meetings. The mayor made the comment: ‘I enjoyed coming to the finance committee, but I probably won’t come as much, so I hope you’ll bring us some good recommendations.’”
Like three other committees — community housing & neighborhood development, planning & development and prosperity & livability — finance is now comprised of only four members. Any council member is welcome to attend meetings and participate in discussion, but only the four members officially appointed by the mayor are allowed a vote on recommendations to forward to the full council for consideration.
“For finance, I think with a smaller committee you’re able to get more information,” Jim Davis said. “I hope to work more with department heads. We can get more done.”
Mayor Bill Bencini said from his perspective the rationale for making the changes was to improve efficiency, adding that he’s happy if bringing more transparency to the process winds up being a collateral benefit.
Another proposed reform embraced by Cynthia Davis has so far run into more resistance from her colleagues on council. She would like to move committee meetings from the city manager’s conference room into the larger council chambers. While all committee meetings are open to the public, space is limited and many citizens do not realize they are welcome to attend.
The scheduling of committee meetings during normal business hours also discourages citizens from attending. While two High Point committee meetings are held at 4 p.m. and two others are held at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. respectively, the four committee meetings of the Winston-Salem City Council take place at 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. The committee rooms used by Winston-Salem City Council provide more ample seating. And committee meetings and full council meetings are televised and posted on the city’s website. None of the meetings of High Point City Council are televised.
“Still working on it,” Cynthia Davis said of her effort to move committee meetings into council chambers.
Jim Davis said he prefers the intimacy of the conference room, where council members gather around a table. He said council members feel freer to ask questions and get involved.
“If we have a large crowd and we need to move to council chambers, I wouldn’t have a problem with that,” he added.
Bencini echoed those sentiments.
“Any time we have a meeting where we have a lot of people who want to show up for, I’m in favor of moving into council chambers,” he said, “but an awful lot of committee meetings don’t have a lot of interest beyond staff members and a couple reporters.”