New council meeting schedule brings work sessions into the light

New council meeting schedule brings work sessions into the light
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

If you watched city council’s first legislative meeting since June on Tuesday night, you may have noticed that things worked a little differently than in the past.

That’s because councilors adopted a fresh way of doing public business, one they say boosts transparency and saves money.

Under the new format, the first legislative meeting of the month will be restricted to “routine” business like proclamations, appointments to the city’s various boards and commissions and oral reports. A second meeting will be devoted to policy discussions and legislation, while Saturday public hearings will remain the same as in previous years.

City Councilor Justin Wilson, who came up with the idea along with colleague Paul Smedberg, said that by concentrating all of the routine business to the first meeting, councilors can move their work sessions into the regular meeting. Previously, work sessions — while open to the public — happened before the official public meeting, were held in a much smaller room at City Hall and were not taped.

“So much of the work of council that happens in meetings happened in our work sessions, and those occurred in the work room and were not televised,” he said. “A lot of the legwork around these important issues happened well before they made it on the council docket. … Now that they’re in the chamber and will be televised, we will shine a greater light on those deliberations.”

Smedberg said it’s better to bring the work sessions closer to the forefront, as even the most engaged city residents often skip them.

“We always hear from people, and I say, ‘You know, we have these work sessions and anyone can come,’” Smedberg said. “People are in the habit of watching council, so why not — if we have a more serious work session — why not make it a part of the actual meeting and have a more strategic discussion surrounding it. We want folks coming in and watching to have access to that debate.”

Smedberg said the new structure, which includes moving executive sessions for discussing legal or personnel matters ahead of the 7 p.m. meeting, saves the city money. Some city staffers now can go home earlier, thus cutting down on overtime pay.

“If we have an executive session, why not start that sooner, so we’re not doing it at 11 or 12 o’clock at night,” he said. “We typically don’t need a full hour or hour and a half, so if we can work through some things, we can do it prior to the meeting’s start [at 7].”

And at the end of a marathon council session, councilors are just as tired as staff and residents. Moving executive sessions before the regular meeting means happier officials and better decision-making, Wilson said.

“Before, we would go back into the back room and have a one- or two-hour discussion on very important matters that we have to weigh in on, but everyone is already exhausted and wants to go home,” he said. “That’s not a good recipe for great decision-making … So if we can wrap in an hour, that’s great, and if not we’ll just suspend [the executive session] at 7 p.m., do the council meeting, and come back afterward.

“That way the lion’s share is done when people are more awake and on their game, and we’re not paying staff to hang around for long hours at night.”