As plan moves on to roundtables, councillor asks more public access

Councillor Ken Reeves confirms that City Council roundtables can be televised with councillor David Maher, offscreen, at at March 7 meeting of the council’s Ordinance Committee, just before voting to move an issue to roundtable-format meetings. Click the image for video of the exchange.

Councillor Ken Reeves confirms that City Council roundtables can be televised with councillor David Maher, offscreen, at at March 7 meeting of the council’s Ordinance Committee, just before voting to move an issue to roundtables. Click the image for video of the exchange.

A city councillor is asking to break a sacred rule and televise a “roundtable” session. Surprisingly, two previous foes of the idea have said publicly that it’s possible.

Councillors get the chance to learn more about the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s plans to remake 26 acres in Kendall Square at a 9:30 a.m. Friday meeting of the council’s Ordinance Committee. It’s been declared a “roundtable,”and the council’s rules say a roundtable can’t be televised, include votes or take public comment.

(A second roundtable on the plan is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. March 27. Councillors were also to get individual sessions in the past week with city planners and experts on the proposal.)

“There’s something magical about when the cameras get turned on,” councillor Marjorie Decker has said in explaining how having a video record of their conversation impedes councillors’ ability to either get or understand information. “[Not recording means] trying to provide the rare opportunity for us as policymakers to talk to each other and to stakeholders so that we are better-informed about what we are thinking and questions we have to ask without the glare of the lights and cameras.”

“If we televise them, they’re no longer roundtables,” she said April 9.

But in a policy order to be heard Monday at the council’s regular meeting, councillor Minka vanBeuzekom asks for a one-time suspension of the no-cameras rule, noting that many working citizens wouldn’t be able to attend a 9:30 a.m. Friday meeting – even for a topic that drew two hours’ worth of public comment at a March 7 committee meeting, the third on the issue.

Precedent?

Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom is asking to let a roundtable be televised. A previous request failed.

Councillor Minka vanBeuzekom is asking to let a roundtable be televised. A previous request failed.

The same argument failed last spring when vanBeuzekom wanted a suspension of the rules for a 4 p.m. weekday meeting. Councillor Craig Kelley supported vanBeuzekom’s suspension idea, while six councillors voted in opposition. Ken Reeves left that nearly year-ago meeting before the vote came up, but he’d already spoken against televising roundtables, seemingly to make a larger point about whether the council was going to follow all its rules or just some of them.

On March 7, though, during the four-hour meeting’s debate over how to keep the university’s plan moving before it expires next month, Reeves apparently felt the lesson was over.

“Typically the roundtable is not televised. It could be if we wanted it to be,” Reeves said.

“We can televise it,” Ordinance Committee chairman said David Maher simultaneously.

First vote, then public comment

The councillors on hand struggled with how to handle their need for information and the public’s right to comment. With the March 11 council meeting canceled so officials could attend an out-of-state conference, March 25 canceled for the Passover holiday and April 15 for Patriots Day – and with the university’s zoning petition expiring the next week – they worried they wouldn’t have time to absorb all the plan’s details. Maher said it was the onrushing expiration that convinced him the petition needed to be referred to the full committee that night “without a recommendation … just a procedural vote.”

“It does not mean that it will or will not be voted, but it’s possible it will be voted,” Maher said.

The council did something then unusual enough to be the basis for a headline in the Cambridge Chronicle: It voted 5-3 to move “MIT proposal forward before hearing public input.”

Kelley, Denise Simmons and vanBeuzekom voted against. Leland Cheung, Mayor Henrietta Davis, Maher, Reeves and Timothy Toomey voted in favor. Decker was traveling and couldn’t be at the meeting.

The vote was taken before public comment because Davis said she had to leave soon.

Cheung voted in favor despite having said just a moment earlier, “Usually we vote these things at the end of a meeting, after the public has commented. So I’m a little concerned about doing that. To put it politely.”

“Not looking to offend”

Voting before hearing from the public was ostensibly okay because sending the petition to the full council was only procedural, but discussion of the move sent councillors in some peculiar directions rhetorically.

“We’re not looking to offend, as though we don’t want to hear from the public,” Maher said, before suggesting a way councillors could talk without hearing from the public further – namely declaring the March 7 merely recessed at the end of the night, rather than ended. The next time the councillors met, he wouldn’t start the meeting, he explained, but would declare the recess over. And that would mean public comment had taken place during a first part of the same meeting that just happened to take place some weeks earlier.

Reeves, meanwhile, suggested the council have “a new kind of meeting,” a working study session facilitated by experts. “We could use a session that doesn’t have public comment. Then we could just stay as long as we could and talk ourselves silly about it, but at least be on the same page about what we’re trying to impact.” Otherwise, he said, “there’s just too much information that arrives the night you discuss it. So it’s not possible to give it an intelligent discussion, which was exactly the case at the last [meeting].”

Simmons supported the idea, saying “It’s very hard to get the information on that evening, hear a presentation, digest it, ask cogent questions, hear public comment and then try to render an opinion” and proposing there be “open shirt” meetings – meaning a less formal format that wouldn’t demand metaphorical buttoned collars, suits and ties.

Cheung – again speaking before his pre-public-comment vote to move the matter onward – suggested, “If we’re going to have meetings where we’re not asking for public comment, we should have another meeting maybe just for public comment.”

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9 Responses to As plan moves on to roundtables, councillor asks more public access

  1. Tom Stohlman

    March 18, 2013 at 7:36 am

    The City Charter says:
    “Except in the cases of executive sessions authorized by section twenty-three A of chapter thirty-nine, all meetings of the city council shall be open to the press and to the public, and the rules of the city council shall provide that citizens and employees of the city shall have a reasonable opportunity to be heard at any such meeting in regard to any matter considered thereat.”

    Seems pretty clear to me. I guess it depends on what “all meetings” means.

    It’s not that hard to give the public a reasonable opportunity to be heard by the Council and have a discussion among the members. It is their meeting, after all.

  2. Robert Winters

    March 18, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Tom – My take on this is that since votes are prohibited at Roundtable meetings, there is no “matter considered thereat”, hence no requirement that public comment be accepted.

  3. Tom Stohlman

    March 19, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Robert- I think it’s a stretch to say no matter is being considered at the MIT PUD5 roundtable. I consider something before I vote. The vote could occur anytime.

    Another point- The wording “citizens and employees of the city shall have a reasonable opportunity to be heard” is different than saying “citizens and employees of the city shall have a reasonable opportunity to speak”. It implies that Council should be listening.

  4. Robert Winters

    March 19, 2013 at 11:16 am

    Tom – I don’t mean to pull a Bill Clinton deposition here, but it all depends on what the meaning of “consider” is. One definition states: “to think about in order to arrive at a judgment or decision.” The implication is that a decision is being made. As I stated previously, the structure of City Council Roundtable meetings presumes that no votes are taken, i.e. that no matter is being “considered.” If no matter is being considered, then there is no requirement that the public be heard.

    Personally, though I totally agree with the idea that cameras should be turned off at Roundtable meetings (and I wish others would respect this), I never warmed to the prohibition of public comment. At the very least they could allow only very brief comments and written submissions.

    I also wish members of the public would refrain from repeating testimony already given at previous meetings.

  5. SK Engineer

    March 19, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I think Tom is right. The Round Table on MIT is being held as an extension of the March 7 Ordinance Committee meeting, to allow for a session where the Councillors can ask their numerous questions. In previous meetings, the initial PowerPoint presentation (plus Councillor questions and discussions) had lasted over two hours, with many citizens signed up to speak having gone home. The idea of an additional meeting of the Ordinance Committee to add their own questions and discussions makes sense in a logical way. However, March 7 was a public meeting and so will be the March 22 meeting. There is a purpose to both meetings — to discuss the MIT zoning proposal. This zoning is clearly the matter being considered.

    The meeting can be labeled any way the Council wishes, Roundtable if you will. But as a meeting discussing a particular issue before the Council, the City charter applies. It seems a simple solution : allow public comment at the end of the Councillors’ discussion period nextg Friday morning. It will be a long wait for comment, but the opportunity can be provided. And in so doing the Council not only complies with the law but also leaves the proper impression that it is open to public comment.

    Steve Kaiser

  6. Tom Stohlman

    March 19, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Robert-

    I agree the public needs to be reasonable too. It is also a violation of the spirit of the Charter to use public comment in a way to obstruct the Council’s business.

    A favorite teacher of mine said that most ideas have to be repeated at least three times for them to be understood. I have had plenty of opportunities to communicate with the CC on this issue. I think I’ve said/written the same things at least three times, so it should be understood at this point.

    Tom

    PS Next time, your site.

  7. SK Engineer

    March 19, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    Tom & Robert,

    Now I must disagree with Tom. The public should be respectful, but should not allow their rights to be removed from them contrary to law. Public comment might become an obstruction to the Council’s business, such as a filibuster or trivial legal challenge, but I do not recall any such problem in recent years, especially under the rigid 3-minute rule. We have had a problem with certain unstable people testifying during regular Council meetings, but now it is our representatives, the Council, that must be patient and reasonable to listen to the public during Ordinance Committee meetings. They limited the public to three-minutes so let them listen and hear.

    I do not understand the application of the repeating-three-times rule to this situation. Citizens have been given three minutes to testify on a very complex MIT rezoning petition. A zoning expert might come in and have a hour’s worth of good testimony to offer — yet the rules limit him or her to three minutes. I think that any citizen who must listen through two or more hours of Council Q&A and discussion should be entitled to three more minutes of comment. I have not had a chance to speak on traffic matters, because there are many more issues (loopholes, compliance with the Constitution) which I feel are worth primary time.
    And on March 7 I was the only speaker cut off by the three minute limit. Talking to the matter at hand (zoning) does not help.
    Tom may speak clearly and eloquently for his three times, but there are others entering the process who are listening and learning. There are unresolved issues over housing, traffic, shadow, past MIT commitments. We must take the time to think and listen.
    The principle and the integrity of public comment must be protected. All the Council needs to do is allow public comment at the end of their meeting on Friday. Why are they resisting? Why is Robert Winters resisting?

    Steve Kaiser

    ============

  8. HeatherHoffman

    March 19, 2013 at 5:35 pm

    I would like the public to have the opportunity to comment at this meeting, and it would actually be very useful to have it at the end so that the public can respond to the councillors’ discussion. However, I am even sorrier that several councillors apparently think that they show themselves in a poor light when the cameras are on and so aren’t willing to have a meeting on a very important policy matter that has been scheduled at a very inconvenient time televised live and, presumably, archived for those who cannot be there in person. I think the cure for this ailment is doing your homework and learning to speak well, not making it hard for the public to see you grappling with complexity.

  9. Silvia Glick

    March 20, 2013 at 9:23 am

    Since the City Council rarely does anything other than give “the proper impression that it is open to public comment,” I don’t think it matters if the meeting is recorded or not, or if residents can talk for 3 minutes or 30 minutes. If we have learned anything from the Rossi hire, it’s that the City Council doesn’t care what the public thinks. And yet the voters elect the same people again and again and again.

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