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Our View: Time to tighten up long meetings

Our View
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It’s hard to imagine anything productive coming out of an almost six-hour-long meeting. And that was the case Thursday night when the Auburn City Council decided to further table a decision regarding a major housing development after a marathon meeting that came very close to ending in the wee hours of Friday morning. The two items up for discussion at the public forum were for the council to decide on whether or not to allow the first phase of the Baltimore Ravine Specific Plan and Study Areas project and to deny or approve an appeal filed against it. The appeal was eventually denied but after the meeting dragged on for far too long. Baltimore Ravine has been a topic of discussion – and a point of contention – for many neighbors in the surrounding area for quite some time. The complete project is a proposal for 725 homes, 90,000 square feet of commercial space and 143 acres of open space. Land for the South Auburn development is bordered by the westbound Union Pacific Railroad track to the south and Auburn-Folsom Road to the east. Interstate 80 sits to the north and northwest of the development. On Thursday, many of those opposed and for the project spoke out. Those who will be impacted attended to find out the fate of their neighborhood. But some had to leave before getting an answer when at 10 p.m. the meeting was still going with no end in sight. When there is a matter of great public concern that will draw a significant sized crowd of interested residents, the city council and staff should take steps to better prepare for the meeting so it’s productive for all who attend. Research beforehand is key. Thursday night, the council decided to ask the planning commission to further look into different access points to the development. That has been a topic of discussion for months. Couldn’t city staff have tackled that issue beforehand? City staff’s PowerPoint presentation that hit on the highlights of the housing and commercial building proposal was a smart idea. They should also provide hand outs to attendees with key information about Baltimore Ravine as supplemental information. But perhaps the most important need to keep meetings succinct is a leader who can move along the conversation. Dr. Bill Kirby is new to the mayoral post but he has a responsibility to run council meetings in a timely fashion. Set the rules for discussion at the beginning of the meeting. Limit the time of individual comments based on the number of speakers and potential ground to cover. Don’t allow council officials or staff to interject between comments. Instead, have them take notes on comments and respond to them at one time at the end of the public comment period. Also, limit the number of comments by telling residents not to repeat a point that has already been made. If there seems to be no way to avoid a lengthy meeting simply because of the content, break it up into several meetings. Provide refreshments for attendees who have most likely either been working a full day or are starting to grow weary from a long night discussing public access issues. Public meetings are an important civil right and it’s encouraging to see residents take their concerns to their elected leaders and have city council members hear them. But the forum needs to be handled in a controlled and fair manner so the meeting is productive and results happen as quickly as possible.