By Tarpley Ashworth
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Charlottesville Planning Commission
has decided to continue the practice of holding an informal “pre-meeting” before its regular televised business meeting. At their work session on September 22, 2009, Commissioners debated the merits of the gatherings as part of a general discussion on streamlining their activities.
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The pre-meetings, which are open to the public but not broadcast on local television, are intended as an opportunity for Commissioners to ask clarifying questions about items on that evening’s agenda. With two members absent, the Commission made no official change, but those present did express verbal support for keeping the practice going on nights when Planning Commission has a regular meeting.
When more than two members of the Planning Commission meet at any location to discuss public business, it is a public meeting under Virginia law which requires the meeting to be advertised in advance, open to the public, and to have meeting minutes.
Planning Commissioner Genevieve Keller called the pre-meetings her “psychological adjustment time” between her regular work day and Commission duties. She said the time allows her to accurately review the night’s agenda items in a relaxed setting with other Commissioners.
Commissioner Dan Rosensweig echoed Keller’s sentiments.
“After working all day long on something else, you get to come here and refocus,” he said. “It might have been four days ago that I prepared my questions and read through the packet,” said Rosensweig. “The questions that other people ask [at the pre-meeting] are really, really valuable.”
However, new Commissioner and former Charlottesville School Board Member John Santoski said he sympathized with citizens who felt that the 4:30pm pre-meeting starting time was inconvenient or exclusionary.
“People felt like something is going on behind closed doors, or very minimally, it wasn’t accessible to the public,” said Santoski. “If we have those questions at 5:00, we’ll have the same questions at 5:30. So why not do it out in front of the public?”
Santoski was not wholly against pre-meetings in general, but wanted to express the concerns of citizens he had talked to. He said that if the Commission deemed the pre-meetings essential, he would not object.
Deputy City Attorney Richard Harris added some historical context to the discussion by saying that when pre-meetings were first developed by the Planning Commission, they were intended to be strictly informal clarification sessions held prior to regular meetings. However as time went on, pre-meetings evolved into more official gatherings where it became out of the ordinary for a Commissioner to not attend. Harris said his opinion is that pre-meetings are beneficial to Commissioners seeking answers to questions pertaining to that night’s agenda items.
Planning Director Missy Creasy agreed that pre-meetings are an important component of the Planning Commission’s work, but told Commissioners to be especially careful to not express personal opinions during the pre-meeting because debate should be reserved for regular meetings.
At the end of the discussion, all Commissioners agreed to retain the pre-meetings at 4:30pm for informational purposes. The first half-hour will be for dinner with official questions beginning at 5:00. The Commission will revisit this issue again at their regular meeting in October when they will likely adopt an official pre-meeting policy.
In other developments, the Planning Commission also discussed moving the public hearing component of their regular meetings from 6:30 to 6:00pm. They will also revisit this issue at next month’s meeting when all Commissioners are present. Chairman Jason Pearson and Commissioner Michael Osteen were not present.
TIMELINE FOR PODCAST
0:57 – Keller asks about meeting time change
1:06 – Planning Manager Missy Creasy says Commission can adopt whatever meeting time change they want, but Commission must change its bylaws to do so
3:08 – Keller asks if bylaws could say that pre-meeting started at a certain time, but if the commissioners decided that they didn’t need the full time then they could start the meeting earlier
3:18 – Creasy wonders how that determination would be made
4:11 – Creasy says that staff preferences are that meeting starts at 5:30pm and public hearing starts at 6:00pm
5:34 – Keller asks if staff has preference on pre-meeting
5:37 – Creasy says pre-meeting was originally a clarification session that evolved into discussing details which had to be reined in
7:41 – Keller asks how Commissioners feel about moving public hearing to 6:00
8:08 – Keller asks about how Commissioners feel about pre-meeting
8:13 – Rosensweig says pre-meeting is very helpful to him
9:40 – Deputy City Attorney Harris says that pre-meeting changed from less informal to more formal and almost required
11:52 – Santoski raises concern about pre-meetings not being as accessible as regular meetings
13:28 – Harris says pre-meeting is beneficial for clarification purposes
13:55 – Santoski thinks pre-meetings can cover too many issues that public should be able to hear
13:20 – Keesecker says pre-meeting are valuable and should be retained in some way
16:29 – Creasy says pre-meeting questions allows staff time to seek answers to questions if needed
18:27 – Creasy says that pre-meetings which stay to clarifications are helpful, but when Commissioners share opinions, they need to be told to save that for the regular meeting
20:47 – Rosensweig supports a more informal pre-meeting at 4:30 and more formal pre-meeting at 5:00
22:32 – Harris doesn’t like idea about advertising pre-meeting at 4:30 since this might confuse citizens
23:17 – Keller is concerned about if they don’t advertise the 4:30 pre-meeting start time, then they would be in violation of the law
24:47 – Keller says that the only potential bylaws change is for the 6:00 public hearing since commissioners want to keep the 4:30 start time for pre-meeting