On the clock

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I may get some angry letters—particularly from journalists in town—but after witnessing the latest protracted debate of the Chico City Council, I’ve come to the following conclusion:

Good theater can make for bad government.

Contentious meetings are more fun to watch than formal proceedings and certainly more fun to read and write about. But they also breed incivility and inefficiency.

Take the Aug. 15 session, when the Wildwood Estates housing development was item 3.2 on the agenda. For three hours, the council heard an appeal of the project before deciding unanimously to suspend the hearing in favor of another meeting between the interested parties and to revisit the matter Oct. 3.

Sounds reasonable. But the synopsis isn’t the story.

The 6-0 vote—at 10:10 p.m.—was the anticlimax of a dramatic saga. First, councilmembers extensively questioned Senior Planner Patrick Murphy. Then residents spoke to the appeal. After a break, developer Tony Symmes got his turn.

Here’s the thing about public comment: Speakers get three minutes to say their piece, but if any councilmember engages the speaker in discussion, the time limit becomes moot.

Councilmembers face no time limit themselves. Their only constraint is a rule saying meetings should end at 10 p.m., but they can vote to extend the session. So under this loose guideline, they can opine and inquire for pretty much however long they wish.

In the case of the Wildwood appeal, this led to a perplexing sequence. Councilmembers pored over the schematics (approved by the Planning Commission, in accordance with council-approved zoning) and actually considered altering the site map right then and there. Abandoning that notion, they welcomed Symmes and two appellants back to the podium for some quick negotiating—another impromptu act. That ended in short order, and the meeting returned to normal.

Normal for the council, that is, which means more free-form debate that can turn combative or hang a hard right (or left) at any moment. Important votes get pushed back to late hours, when fatigue sets in, or to later dates.

I spoke with Dan Herbert, whose eight years as a councilman include time as mayor. He said the mayor and city staff, when setting agendas, try to anticipate the amount of discussion an issue will generate. Sometimes they guess wrong, as with Wildwood and the Mechoopda casino proposal earlier in the summer.

“There’s much more integrity to say it publicly than have a time limit where I can’t cover my issue and I have to flesh it out somewhere [a colleague] can’t respond,” he said, making a strong case for open-ended debates.

I can’t help but think about other legislative bodies that have robust deliberations within sensible structures. The chairman (or president, or mayor) makes sure members get their say within their allotted time. Debate is focused; decorum is fostered.

Chicoans have grown accustomed to theatrics. I’d prefer more stage direction and less improv.