Meetings Needn't Run On Forever

COMMENT

December 13, 1992|By ELISE ARMACOST

Gorham L. Black, Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall's new liaison to the school board, has been attending the board's bi-monthly meetings for several months now. Already it feels like a lifetime.

No newcomer to government bureaucracy, Mr. Black has sat through his share of tedious meetings. But these school board affairs -- they're something else.

"They're L-O-N-G," he says. "Three bladders' worth."

The day meetings drone on for 9 to 10 hours. The night meetings begin at 7:30 p.m. and run into the small hours of the morning. Occasionally, the board enjoys a spirited debate. But much of the time the discussion is repetitious and deadly dull. "Like watching paint dry," Mr. Black says.

Last week, the board voted down a list of suggestions designed to make its meetings more bearable. Shorten them, they argued, and you stifle public comment. People might not participate if day meetings can only last eight hours and night meetings must end before midnight.

"We're damned if we do and damned if we don't," complained board member Dorothy Chaney, referring to the common criticism that the board is a poor communicator. "The ways to improve communication do not include curtailing the input of the board or of the public."

The question is, are the school board's endless meetings democracy at work? Or just poor time management?

To get an answer, consider the differences between our school board meetings and the bi-monthly sessions in four nearby jurisdictions, all larger than Anne Arundel.

Baltimore City has 113,000 students, 43,000 more than here. Its meetings start at 6:30 p.m. and last two to three hours. "The longest was 9:30," a school spokesman said.

Under new Superintendent Stuart Berger, Baltimore County, with students, has its school board meetings down to 2 1/2 hours. (Under the previous superintendent, Robert Dubel, they rarely lasted more than four hours.)

Prince Georges County's meetings average four hours. "Once or twice a year" the night meetings will run past midnight, said public affairs director Bonnie Jenkins.

In Montgomery County, meetings last longer -- about eight hours during the day and 4 hours at night. That is still shorter than in Anne Arundel, and Montgomery has 40,000 more students.

The meetings in these other counties are shorter because the boards schedule private executive sessions beforehand or during dinner hours. And they are vigilant about limiting public testimony to reasonable lengths and keeping their own mem bers from rambling.

In Prince George's, individuals have three minutes to speak and those representing groups are allowed five -- the same restrictions as in Anne Arundel. But our school board rarely stops speakers when their time is up. In Prince George's, a buzzer rings, and then speakers have 15 seconds to conclude.

Ms. Jenkins explains: "The chairman says, 'I am sorry, sir, but vTC that is your time. Please leave your written comments.' And, boom, they are gone."

When a controversial issue promises to bring out a large crowd in Baltimore County, a separate hearing is scheduled on a different night.

Montgomery County is perhaps too restrictive, allowing only eight people to speak at any meeting. Still, its method of having large factions choose a spokesman is a good one.

Our school board believes democracy demands that every person who shows up at a meeting be allowed to speak for as long as he or she wants. But the purpose of a public meeting is to allow government to discern what the people want, not to let individuals vent spleens. Whenever a large group shows up to protest or support anything, it is only a matter of time before the same points are repeated over and over.

Oddly enough, parents seem to have become conditioned to Anne Arundel's endless meetings. One angry parent said last week that if reporters and public officials don't want to sit through them, they should find another job. But the reasons for shortening meetings go beyond convenience.

"I remember one meeting where we went 12 or 13 hours straight," said board member Michael Pace, who proposed the suggestions for curtailing the meetings. "The human mind cannot make a rational decision after that much time."

And as far as democracy is concerned, who knows how many people who might otherwise get involved in school affairs are discouraged from doing so because they can't afford to devote the kind of time these meetings require?

School board members say they don't need Mr. Pace's suggestions. "We do everything to curtail meetings," Mrs. Chaney said.

"This whole exercise has been unnecessary," added board member Maureen Carr-York. "We already have those as our general policy."

Fine. But if that is so, there is no reason why last week's meeting should have lasted 9 1/2 hours.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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