Marion council features less discussion
Marion City Council members met for about 10 minutes at their Jan. 23 meeting with little public discussion about any of the items on their agenda.
A week later, Peabody City Council met for three hours with robust discussion, including comments from the public.
Discussion also is common at Hillsboro City Council meetings.
The differences in how each council governs are stark.
Short meetings with little discussion have been the norm for Marion’s bi-weekly meetings. On Monday, city council members talked more before casting a vote than they usually do. Meetings often are about 30 minutes long. With the exception of Ruth Herbel, council members rarely ask questions before voting on matters.
That concerns Herbel and those who advocate for open government.
“I do have concerns because I’m very open.” Herbel said. “I like discussion. Somebody may be thinking something I didn’t think of, and it might affect my vote.
“I have a big concern that the public that elected us aren’t getting full information. It needs to be explained why we’re doing what we’re doing. We try to keep the residents in the dark so they don’t know what we’re doing.”
Members of the council, Herbel said, “don’t think on their own.”
“We need to do our own research without OKing what everybody else says,” she said.
In democracies, there’s often tension between “the perception of getting something done and openness,” Bob Beatty, professor and chairman of the political science department at Washburn University, said.
“The people are ultimately in charge, and they should have full information,” he said. “Although they’re electing representatives, it’s not carte blanche to say, ‘Well, you don’t need to know what we’re talking about.’ ”
Marion may be satisfied with how its council and mayor operate, Beatty said.
“It’s up to the people of that locality, and it’s a democracy,” he said. “Some elected officials argue, I got elected, and in this case, I guess the people like this style. It could take someone to run for office and say, ‘I’m going to change this.’ ”
Lack of discussion begs two questions, Beatty said.
“Are elected officials talking about things outside of the public meeting, and is that what the people want?” he said, noting that it’s illegal for a majority of an elected body to discuss items outside of a public meeting. Doing so is a violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
“Optimally, there’s full information for the voters,” Beatty said. “It’s up to the voters to demand it. Is this what the people of the city want? That’s the biggest question. Is that what the people want because, ultimately, they’re in charge.”
Legitimate democracy demands robust discussion, Friends University political science professor Russell Arben Fox said.
“If you have a city government where you go back weeks and months and they have approved 40 different zoning changes, new developments, building permits, whatever, and only one of them has ever involved raising a question or whatnot, then you could certainly make a case that somebody is really falling down on their job,” he said. “Someone is not doing what representative democracy is supposed to. Is it really the case that nobody in Marion has any questions?
“Isn’t the point of representative democracy to have different points of view represented?”
Peggy Blackman, who was Marion’s mayor from 1977 to 1986, is bothered by lack of discussion. When she was mayor, the governing body was a three-member commission. Marion didn’t have a city administrator at the time.
“We only had a city clerk,” she said.
Because of that, commission members spent a lot of time “going through every item.”
Now, she said, “it seems that everything is decided before they get to the meeting, which bothers me a lot.”
Blackman has spoken during the public comment portion of meetings — particularly about a charter resolution that would have allowed the council to approve issuing general obligation bonds without a public vote.
“I don’t know I was listened to,” she said. “It was a waste of my time, because first of all, they never answered the questions I really wanted them to answer.
“I just do not feel that the current council actually gives the community an opportunity to express their ideas and goals and so forth with the governing body. And there’s no back-and-forth between the council members.”
Hillsboro residents, she said, “at least know what’s going on.”