Chapel Hill Town Council considers holding shorter meetings

Easthom: Long meetings not fair

Town Council members discussed ways to make their meetings more efficient. DTH/Mark Abadi

It wasn’t until 12:30 a.m. — five-and-a-half hours after it began — that last week’s Chapel Hill Town Council meeting adjourned.

But council members weren’t so drained at Monday’s meeting when, at 9:10 p.m., they discussed their final issue of the night: making their meetings shorter.

Seemingly interminable business meetings and public hearings, which begin most Mondays at 7 p.m. but sometimes drag on beyond midnight, could be taking a toll on the town and some of its officials.

Decisions made by weary council members late in the night don’t serve residents well, council member Laurin Easthom said.

In a petition to the board, she requested town staff look into ways to make future meetings end earlier.

“It’s not fair to anybody,” Easthom said. “It’s not fair to the council, the staff … the citizens who have to sit for four-and-a-half hours to be heard.”

In the meantime, she said, the council should enforce a rule in its procedure manual that calls for a vote on whether to proceed with agenda items after 10:30 p.m.

And as a courtesy to residents who come in hopes of speaking at the lectern, agendas should be labeled with a warning saying the council may not complete the agenda when meetings run late, Easthom said.

Critical issues such as permits for local developments often arise as the time nears midnight, council member Penny Rich said in an interview.

“You really want to be on your toes when you’re talking about development, and I feel like I’m not because I’m tired,” she said.

Those items could be pushed to later meetings.

Consistently late meetings also could intimidate future council candidates, Easthom said.

But to trim hours off its meetings, the council needs to do a better job of gauging public response to various topics of discussion, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said.

Council members may have a better idea than town staff, who make the agenda, as to how long discussions will last, he said.

“We hear more,” he said. “We can probably predict with greater accuracy how full the room is going to be on a given night than maybe the staff does.”

The petition was referred to town staff, and Kleinschmidt said he would begin implementing the 10:30 p.m. rule more strictly.

“I totally support everything everybody has said,” council member Gene Pease said shortly before Kleinschmidt adjourned the meeting at 9:23 p.m.

“Let’s get out of here.”

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