Consent agenda synonymous with hidden agenda

One need go no further than last night’s meeting of the St Augustine City Commission to see the epic failure and misuse of a parliamentary procedure designed to formalize and move along administrative matters of business during government meetings.

When Mayor Joe Boles had to ask twice for a motion from commissioners on the very first agenda item, he quipped, “It’s going to be a long night if I can’t even get a motion for approval of minutes from prior commission meetings.”

Following a well formatted agenda and adherence to Robert’s Rules of Order in moving the business of the meeting forward is something the City of St Augustine does poorly. With three members of the commission being attorneys, including the mayor, and the City Attorney and Assistant City Attorney in the room, you would think time would not be wasted in disposing of the simplest of business — and you would be wrong.

If I had to pick, I would say Bill Leary is the worst at taking a two-minute point and spending twenty minutes explaining it. No wonder the meetings drag on for hours, and there is no good reason for it. The staff has worked all day and they are tired, as are the commissioners and the audience attending meetings that do not start until 5:00 p.m.

Commissioners convene to set policy for the city and professional public administrators are charged with carrying out those policies. The consent agenda is a tool; whereby, without cluttering the regular agenda with numerous administrative items that don’t require public hearing or are only a matter of formality, they can be adopted in one voice vote — but, too often, when the clerk prepares the agenda, it is clear that the consent agenda has become something much different.

Last night’s consent agenda consisted of 13 items of business listed as Item 5 on the regular agenda — after general public comments. Half of the items were of significant importance to be “pulled” by commissioners for discussion.

Arguably if half the items that are intended to be approved by consent, without itemization on the public agenda, need to be moved away and heard in the regular meeting the consent agenda, as it was used, served no purpose other than to frustrate the process.

What’s worse is the enormity of some of the items that would have received a “rubber stamp” approval without a satisfactory public airing. A smarter use of the tool would be to take all the timewasters in regular agenda Item 3, approve them by consent, then issue certificates at another time.

Instead, they brought Carl Blow, a political candidate for election in two weeks, and gave him fifteen minutes of televised air time to pat himself on the back for doing his job as a FIND commissioner, and then wasted the rest of the first hour crowing about the positive impact and progress of the 450th commemoration that, in reality, has more fleas than a Georgia hound dog.

The public perceives the consent agenda as a “hidden agenda” for approval of topics that the administration or commissioners would just as soon not have to explain in public or, worse yet, have to hear public comment concerning.

For example, last night, the last consent agenda item, lucky 13, approved a contract and commitment of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Picasso exhibit — oh, and by the way, had it not been pulled from the consent agenda, we would not have known that the City Manager has cancelled the contract with the private collection that all the preparation of the VIC was to accommodate or that the city is moving forward with another contract with the Picasso Foundation in Malaga Spain.

As a news editor, I want the public to be informed. I do not think that every move the City Manager makes needs to appear before the full commission — they hired him, let him do his job, if he can’t then let him go. Having said that, I also believe that less political and bureaucratic influence needs to come into play in determining what goes onto the consent agenda and vice versa.

Oh, one other thing. Start following Robert’s Rules of Order. The continued abuse of discussion and rebuttal is agonizing. No speaker should speak more than twice in the same meeting on the same topic, the maker of the motion should call for close of discussion, discussion should be limited to no more than ten minutes per item. I could go on, but then, I’m only given three minutes.