2015-11-19 / Opinion

Presiding Officials Need to Preside


City and Town Council meetings and, for that matter, School Committee meetings as well, were never intended to become events akin to being locked inside a torture chamber.

But that is just what sometimes seems to happen in both Middletown and Newport as evening meetings turn into late-night marathons with “expert” witnesses gobbling up way more time than they should need to make their points.

Meanwhile, attendees, some of them just interested citizens with no personal business before these bodies, struggle to stay awake as they await the outcomes of whatever matters drew them to attend in the first place.

Do not misunderstand. We are not suggesting that anyone’s opinion be stifled at these meetings.

But, on a controversial zoning matter, did the Middletown Town Council really need a 40-minute dissertation from a planning “expert” reading verbatim from a seven-page report? Presumably, members of the Middletown Town Council could have read this material for themselves prior to a Nov. 16 formal council meeting had they gotten the document in advance.

Presentations were also made by three more “experts.”

That particular meeting, which began at about 7 p.m. with routine considerations, droned on until well after midnight. The night’s “big” news—that the council, on a 7-0 vote, is supporting a moratorium on “big box” retail construction until March 2—was not made until after midnight.

We have criticized the Rhode Island General Assembly from time to time for its late-session approval of important legislation in the morning’s wee hours. We strongly believe that the same goes for local committees and boards. Post midnight votes at meetings that are called to order right after suppertime are no way to conduct the public’s business.

We have in the past urged the Newport School Committee to conduct two monthly meetings—one to consider routine items that do not evoke controversy and another to consider those matters that have roiled the populace. City and town councils might look for new ways to rearrange their agendas to better balance the time needed to consider ordinary business and controversial public hearings.

It sometimes seems to us as though some who come before the councils and school committees actually take charge of these meetings and dictate how long their “experts” will occupy center stage.

“Protecting their clients’ rights,” they may call it.

That is the role of whoever presides over these meetings. To these presiders we say, emphatically, “preside!”

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