Too many COWs and not enough minutes?

Am I the only one, or have you also seen a large increase in the number of COWs in University Heights? More than 20 have been spotted so far this year. No, these are not the barnyard variety. These are a certain kind of legislative meeting. COW is the acronym used by city council on its e-mail notices to refer to Committee-of-the-Whole meetings.

Is this a problem? It may very well be that they are diluting the legislative process. Councilman Philip Ertel correctly pointed out at the Nov. 1 council meeting that “very little has been accomplished this past year.” One reason may be the proliferation of COWs at the expense of individual committee meetings.

It is probably time for council to reconsider its ineffective use of COW meetings. When responsibility is diffused, nothing gets done. Council committees should resume meeting regularly, with each councilman presiding over his own committee. 

Each chairman needs to write and post minutes of committee proceedings in city hall, as ordinances and resolutions are currently posted. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.” 

So what is the difference between council committees and COWs? City councils organize committees to investigate and make recommendations to the full body on issues of legislation. The smaller group can frequently perform the task more efficiently than the full council. The smaller committee meetings can also be more “resident friendly” ;residents may be less timid about attending and speaking their mind.

On important or controversial matters, however, the council will sometimes form a committee consisting of the entire council to explore the legislation in detail. Only for these important matters is it expedient to require the attendance and attention of all members of the council. In University Heights, such a meeting is called committee-of-the-whole.

Council has the power to enact ordinances and resolutions. In order to make this process efficient, council committees recommend ordinances and resolutions to council for its consideration and vote.

Last January, the new council scheduled standing committee-of-the-whole (COW) meetings twice a month. Councilman Frank Consolo recommended that Councilwoman Frankie Goldberg chair the COW meetings. Council also  suggested that individual council committees meet simultaneously, under the chairmanship of Goldberg, during the COW meetings.

Let’s stand back and take a look at what has happened. Is it possible that holding two council and two COW meetings a month requiring the presence of the entire council, every week, is counterproductive? 

A recent COW meeting was cancelled due to the lack of an agenda. Yet, members of council, the mayor, citizens, reporters, and city hall staff are committed to these dates well in advance. They may not schedule business trips, family dinners or committee council meetings, and learn of cancellations only on short notice.

The problem? Of the seven council committees, only seven independent meetings took place this year. About another six occurred under the chairmanship of Goldberg in COW meetings. That averages less than two meetings per committee for the year. 

In business, measurable objectives are set and evaluated continually. Sometimes objectives, strategies or the ability of the individuals entrusted with the task are reconsidered. Our municipal government is not a business, but couldn’t we borrow proven strategies to understand why we are not meeting our objectives?

Documentation, in this case minutes, is essential to evaluating the progress toward achieving goals. Minutes are to be turned in to the clerk of council, whose job is to “keep the records and minutes.” You will look in vain for a complete set of the minutes of the 2010 COW or council committee meetings; precious few are available. Before January 2008, councilmen wrote minutes in a timely manner. That changed in January 2008. The public posting of minutes, in my opinion, is needed and should be implemented.

The seven 2010-2011 committees, their respective chairmen and the number of independent meetings, according to public documents, follows. Building - Councilwoman Goldberg, one meeting; Civic Information - Councilman Consolo, no meetings; Finance - Councilman Sims, three meetings; Governmental Affairs - Councilwoman Pardee, two meetings; Recreation - Councilman Murphy, no meetings; Safety - Councilman Bullock, no meetings; Service and Utilities - Councilman Ertel, one meeting.

Let me know your suggestions. After all, this is our city and casting our ballots on Election Day is just the start.

Anita Kazarian is a marketing professional, founder of Noah’s Landing, LLC and a long-time resident of UH. Contact her at anitakazarian@gmail.com..

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Volume 3, Issue 12, Posted 1:53 PM, 11.16.2010