The math of Santa Fe City Council meetings shows the kind of time commitment governance can involve.
At the last meeting, for example, nine councilors (one who left early) confronted more than 50 agenda items. One topic drew testimony from 17 members of the public who each were allowed two minutes to speak, some taking longer. Then, the elected officials themselves started talking. Before that, a closed-door executive session had lasted more than 40 minutes. In a not-uncommon scenario, the semimonthly gathering that began at 5 p.m. was finally gaveled to adjournment at 10:45 p.m.
After Councilor Peter Ives was elected to the governing board in March, he began poring over the documents that help city government function — the agreements, the strategic plans and the rules and procedures.
That’s when he came up with an idea he hoped would make council meetings run more efficiently. In short, he proposed to “strongly” encourage limiting presentations to 15 minutes, require officials to give notice a few days ahead of time when they want to remove items from a “consent calendar” and put them up for discussion, and restrict each councilor to two speeches per debate, each no longer than five minutes.
The proposal drew so much discussion and debate that he’s now planning to hold a public hearing before presenting it to his colleagues for a vote.
“It’s demanding of people on the council and of people who appear before the council and staff so that everybody is concentrating on the issues rather than, if you will, the personalities,” Ives, a lawyer, said of his proposal. “It is just helping us stay on focus on the actual issues in a civil way.”
Ives’ proposal is on the council’s Wednesday agenda, but he said Monday that he will request to table that item pending more conversation.
The board of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government is reviewing the proposal for compliance with state laws on transparency, said Gwyneth Doland, executive director.
Doland said the board is concerned about a part of the proposal that would prohibit a councilor from talking publicly about discussions that took place during closed-door executive sessions, a provision that could keep an elected official from reporting potential violations of open-meeting rules.
“We are always concerned when a public body considers taking steps to reduce transparency in the process,” she said.
Objections to the proposal arose during a committee hearing earlier this month, including some from other councilors who said the rules seemed too limiting. Community groups including the Santa Fe County League of Women Voters, Santa Fe Coalition for Good Government, and Common Cause have argued that the rules might have a stifling effect on public discourse.
“No one is disputing that councilors and members of the public should be prepared, organized and concise when they discuss issues at council. However, not all issues fit into neat little boxes, and a one-size-fits-all set of rules is not [the] solution to the problem of long meetings,” former councilor Karen Heldmeyer wrote in an opinion piece published over the weekend.
An email sent last week from Common Cause New Mexico to the city clerk states, “We believe adoption of this resolution would seriously restrict public debate and hinder public access to information about the matters being considered by the city council.”
Ives said he’s ready to amend his proposal. For example, some time limits he proposed might be too short, he said.
“I am happy to try and figure out what everybody is comfortable with in that regard,” he said. “The object is not to stifle debate but to really focus debate.”