Town Council Regular Meeting, 8/26/19

The big issue was: The Percent for Art bylaw work group!

On Monday night, after more than an hour of wrangling, the council passed a motion to convene an ad hoc council committee to address the Percent for Art bylaw that town meeting passed over two years ago. As presented at the last council meeting, this committee was originally slated to be a “work group,” but the council has not been able to craft language that would permit such a designation under the new charter so they called it an “ad hoc committee” instead. Whatever they call it, as the chair of the Public Art Commission, I’m relieved that some progress is finally being made to bring Percent for Art back to the council for a vote.

At the council’s regular meeting on June 3rd, consideration of a revision of the Percent for Art bylaw was referred by council president Lynn Griesemer to the Community Resources Committee (CRC), the Finance Committee, the Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) and the town’s attorney. These various bodies were supposed to report back to the full council in forty five days. While this was a tall order, it could have been accomplished.

Unfortunately, the process was derailed by the good intentions of Steve Schreiber, chair of CRC, when he recommended that a work group be formed that would bring representatives of all of these various parties together in one room to work together to craft a new version of the bylaw that could be presented to the full council for a vote.

It turns out that there is no provision for forming a work group in the charter, which led to over two months of gridlock. The irony is that work groups would potentially allow the council to get work done faster. Various councilors have described them using words to the effect of “nimble,” “fleet footed,” “quick to act.” They would allow council committees to call a temporary collection of experts together over a brief, specified period of time to research, help develop or otherwise accomplish a particular goal.

Many councilors have expressed genuine concern that the council has not been able to achieve as much as it could because of the long, often tendentious, discussions that accompany even their smallest decisions. Over the past year, the council has improved. They are doing a better job not wordsmithing or copy editing at public meetings, which is a waste of everyone’s time. But four meetings—which is how many the GOL has spent on this issue—and hours of debate on work groups versus ad hoc committees is squandering the valuable time of our elected officials and slowing down more substantial goals.

Deliberation and public discussion are important, particularly on issues that directly effect the public. When it comes to the procedural mechanics of the council, the council can always correct any decisions it makes. As both Evan Ross and Steve Schreiber have said at different council meetings, councilors need to learn not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

At the next regular council meeting on September 9th, unless things get derailed again, the council will officially convoke the Percent for Art ad hoc committee. It will be asked to report back to the council by early November at which point whatever it proposes will likely be referred back to all three of the original council committees to which it was initially referred as well as the town’s attorney. We’ll be lucky if a revised bylaw comes to the council for a vote before 2020. Even with an ad hoc “work group,” slowly grinds the wheels of governance.