The City Council’s first meeting of the year on Jan. 2 had no items on the agenda for voting, though sources told the Herald that city officials were expected to provide an update on the search for a new city manager — a year after former City Manager Jack Schnirman left to serve as county comptroller.
While no announcement on the search was given — City Council President Anthony Eramo dispelled rumors about a major update after the meeting — the council held its regular good and welfare session, which had its share of fireworks.
When Eramo announced that three-minute speaking time during good and welfare would be enforced, it sparked the ire of several residents in the audience. Eramo said that council members would try to answer residents’ questions after their allotted three-minutes was up or at the following council meeting, rather than stopping the clock and answering questions immediately when asked within the three-minute period.
“To start off the new year, we’re going to change up the way good and welfare works a little bit,” Eramo said. “It’s technically supposed to be three minutes of uninterrupted time, and that’s what you’re going to receive is three minutes of uninterrupted time. We’re not stopping the clock — we’ll answer questions at the end of your three minutes. If we can’t answer any of your questions, we’re going to be writing them down, and we’ll answer them at the beginning of good and welfare at the following meeting.”
Former school board President Roy Lester and some others criticized the change and called it “undemocratic.”
“This is the way the public gets their information, by having this type of debate. That’s what democracy is about,” Lester said. “You cut off debate when you cut off the response of the public.”
“It’s turned into a debate, back and forth, of questions, and it’s turned into political theater,” Eramo responded. “That’s not what this is — this is a governmental procedure, a governmental meeting, and we need to start treating it that way. This is not a debate forum.”
Eramo said the city’s Code of Ordinances “clearly” states that residents be given three minutes of speaking time during good and welfare, which is held at the end of each council meeting. He acknowledged that he did not discuss the issue with council members John Bendo, Chumi Diamond, Scott Mandel and Anissa Moore.
“This does not have to be discussed,” he said. “The charter clearly states three minutes of uninterrupted time.”
Eramo’s announcement didn’t prevent critics and others from pressing the council on the change, as well as its ongoing search for a city manager, rotating the council presidency, pedestrian safety and a slew of other issues. Resident Allison Blanchette said it was time for Eramo to step down as president, and called Council Vice President Chumi Diamond his “lap dog.” Later in the meeting, resident Ron Paganini and Acting City Manager Mike Tangney accused each other of being liars during one particular exchange.
“The personal attacks have gotten out of control,” Eramo told the Herald on Monday.
In a joint response on Facebook after the meeting, Bendo and Moore criticized the change, saying that they first learned about it when Eramo announced it at the meeting.
“Up until last night’s meeting, the clock was stopped after someone asked a question so that it could be answered,” they said. “After the question was answered, the clock was started once again. This created a dialogue, which is the hallmark of open government. Under the new format, people will be given three minutes of uninterrupted time with no stoppage of the clock. Questions that were asked may be answered at the end of the three minutes or at the next council meeting, eliminating the opportunity for follow-up questions and a dialogue between the council and residents.”
“We believe that one person’s debate is another person’s dialogue,” Bendo and Moore added. “Good and welfare is the only public format where the council and the public interact on issues of importance to our city.”
On Facebook, and in a column in the Herald this week, Eramo clarified his remarks regarding good and welfare, saying that while he did not discuss the issues with other members, “the concept itself was discussed openly many times over the past year.”
“To be clear, no changes to the format outlined in our City Code were made, rather enforced,” Eramo said on Facebook. “This being the first meeting of the new year was a perfect time to begin to re-establish our city’s own rules. The three-minute limitation has existed in the city code for a very long time.”
Asked after the meeting why the search for a new city manager has taken so long, Eramo told the Herald that the council was unhappy with the results of the most recent candidate pool, after having narrowed it down to a few applicants, and is still considering hiring an executive search firm.
“We didn’t like where the search ended up — we were unhappy with the candidates,” said Eramo. “We hired a firm to do a background check, and we decided to go in a different direction. We’ve discussed [hiring a search firm], and we do have to figure out how to pay for that if that’s what we want to do.”