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Time limits crimp vital discourse

Published June 22, 2004

If people who watch Dunedin City Commission meetings could watch such meetings in other cities, they soon would notice something peculiar.

Dunedin's elected officials are hamstrung by rules.

Most city commissions or councils in Pinellas have rules of procedure to ensure that meetings are orderly and that the public's business gets done efficiently.

Only in Dunedin do the rules seem designed to limit elected officials' opportunity to fully discuss the complicated subjects that confront municipal officials today.

For instance, most cities have a limit - usually three minutes - on how long a member of the public may speak at a meeting. But in Dunedin, the city commissioners have a limit on how long they may speak on a topic: five minutes.

They don't even get a full five minutes, because if they ask a question of the city's staff or a consultant, that individual's answer is subtracted from the five minutes.

Not only is such a rule unusual, it is a severe limitation on elected officials' ability to ask questions, discuss details, explore options and then make good decisions.

There is also a rule that City Commission meetings may go no later than 11 p.m., even if the items on the agenda haven't been completed.

Another unusual rule requires that the agenda for the next commission meeting two weeks hence be set at the end of the current commission meeting. If in the intervening two weeks, an item comes up that needs the commission's attention, it is added to the printed agenda with a star beside it. When the commission next meets, any item with a star can be discussed only with the unanimous consent of the commissioners.

It is customary for city commissions and councils to have a time at the end of each meeting when elected officials can bring up anything on their minds. Dunedin commissioners can do that too, but the rules say they can't bring up any item that was on that night's agenda, with or without a star.

The five-minute rule was established about 10 years ago and was designed, according to current Mayor John Doglione, "to get the commission to move along and make decisions and not do yackety-yacks." Doglione says five minutes should be plenty of time for commissioners to make their points and then "get off stage."

Doglione, who retired from the Air Force, is a stickler for the rules. He has even been known to recognize a commissioner wishing to speak with the admonition, "Okay, but the clock is running."

One commissioner, Bob Hackworth, believes Doglione is especially intent on enforcing the five-minute rule against him. Hackworth and Doglione often disagree. Hackworth also asks lots of questions and is sometimes dissatisfied with the answers. If he runs out of time, he can only hope that the mayor will grant him a little extra time.

But Hackworth is not the only commissioner who has found his ability to ask questions and discuss concerns limited. New commissioner Dave Eggers is, like Hackworth, one who likes to explore all the angles before making a decision, but he sometimes runs smack into the rules in the process. Commissioner Deborah Kynes has been known to show her frustration when the mayor's enforcement of the rules shuts down discussion.

Commissioners are not "onstage" during meetings; they are in what should be their workplace, doing their jobs. Rules like Dunedin's prematurely shut down discussion on even the most important business, reducing the give and take among elected colleagues that sometimes gives rise to new ideas or the discovery of unexpected problems.

Such rules can have other deleterious effects, too. They let the staff and consultants off the hook too easily. After all, if commissioners have limited time to ask questions, there is only limited time for the answers, too, so discussions remain at a superficial level. And such rules might drive more of the public's business behind closed doors. An industrious commissioner determined to fully explore a topic on the agenda, but aware that the rules will limit the opportunity at a meeting, is more likely to meet privately with the staff to get answers.

The public is best served by seeing elected officials do their work in full view, spending as much time as it takes to do it well. That is a far more important priority than finishing a meeting quickly or shutting down the occasional loquacious commissioner.

[Last modified June 21, 2004, 21:19:08]

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