Marathon meetings leave council numb

`Stressed out' group plans extra sessions to reduce backlog

October 17, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | By Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Responding to the aggravation of recent marathon meetings and faced with a serious backlog of county business, the Anne Arundel County Council has decided to schedule extra sessions during the next several months to try to keep up.

"We are all very stressed out by these long meetings," council Chairwoman Shirley Murphy said yesterday, referring to several sessions that lasted from 7 p.m. to midnight.

"After you sit there for five hours, you are totally exhausted," said Murphy, who, like other council members, sips hot coffee or caffeinated soda to stay alert. "We have to do what we can to shorten them up."

Beginning next month, Murphy said, she will ask her colleagues to attend special public hearings in addition to the twice-monthly legislative sessions. The aim is to prevent a logjam of legislation and planning issues, a situation that could jeopardize County Executive Janet S. Owens' goal of modernizing county code and zoning maps.

"We have an aggressive [legislative] schedule that I think we all want to get ... behind us," Murphy said.

The decision to convene additional meetings followed a particularly time-consuming session Monday night during which about 50 residents spoke on a variety of topics - some of them arcane.

Testimony covered cultivation of freshwater pearls in the Chesapeake Bay, the purity of some residential water wells, the expansion needs of a popular athletic club in Arnold and the high cost of college tuition.

By the time residents had finished speaking, the hands on a clock in council chambers showed that several hours had passed, and council members were hard-pressed to vote on several bills before a mandated midnight cutoff. They were clearly frustrated, as were a number of residents who had waited for hours to see the outcome of a certain piece of legislation.

Crofton Councilman John J. Klocko III said yesterday that Murphy should have been more vigilant about keeping residents to the three-minute time limit. Monday was not the first time Murphy has allowed speakers to exceed the limit, a practice that has caused friction among council members.

Tighter discipline urged "You have to exert discipline on the process," said Klocko.

"It's easy to do," he said. "You just tell people that they have three minutes and that when the bell rings their time is up."

To help move meetings along, Murphy proposed yesterday limiting each speaker to two minutes at meetings when a large number of residents sign up to speak.

Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., a councilman from Millersville - who took a break during the long meeting Monday to stretch his legs - encouraged speakers to be concise.

"You don't want to be rude and cut people off, but it is difficult near the end of a long [testimony] to stay focused on what people are saying," he said. "I get more out what people say in the first 30 seconds than what they say after two or three minutes. The rest is just fluff."

Decisions postponed Council members were prevented from voting on three bills Monday because they ran out of time. That caused some bickering before the rap of the chairwoman's gavel ended the meeting and the group disbanded. Some headed home; others went to a tavern to blow off steam.

"I wanted to be elected, and I love what I do, but there are only so many hours in a day," said Councilwoman Pamela G. Beidle, who manages an insurance agency. Five out of seven council members juggle full-time jobs and county business.

"I think out of fairness to the people who are coming to testify ... we can't ask them to sit there until midnight to talk about something that involves their family or their quality of life," said Beidle, who supports the idea of scheduling additional meetings.

Toll on staff members The late meetings also are hard on staff members, who line up at the back of council chambers to wait for their piece of legislation, or for questions that might arise during a debate. By 11 p.m., employees begin to show the strain of 15-hour workdays in the form of yawns and blank stares.

Even Owens, who regularly watches council sessions via cable TV in her fourth-floor office, said she finds it difficult sometimes to stay wide awake.

"I finished watching the meeting at 11:15 [Monday] night because I was just too tired to stay up any longer," she said, adding that while legislation is important, she worries about the amount of time her staff spends at meetings.

Murphy said she has spoken with Owens about holding back some legislation to give the council a chance to catch up.

"I know they are going to be picking and choosing," Murphy said. "I know they are going to try to work with us."

Monday night, the council adopted legislation to limit homebuilding near crowded schools, but was forced to postpone votes on two other planning issues.

The council also defeated a bill that would have limited homebuilding in older summer colonies such as Bay Ridge and Manhattan Beach. Annapolis Councilwoman Barbara D. Samorajczyk introduced similar legislation to replace the bill.

Council members will vote Nov. 5 on legislation to amend the county's water and sewer master plan, which includes more than a dozen amendments. At the same meeting, they will vote on the Broadneck Small Area Plan.

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