Council retreats from its retreat

As the billing suggests, City Council retreats have traditionally been casual affairs – a chance for councilors to kick off their shoes and chit chat.

Thus they met at bed and breakfasts and other private venues. It’s been said slippers made the occasional appearance. No cameras were present, and the press and public typically respected councilors’ privacy as they discussed ways to work together more effectively.

“Normally a council retreat is just that,” Councilman Bill Knobloch said. “A retreat.”

This year there’s a new council and a new plan, sans slippers. Councilors, the mayor and city staff will meet today from 8:30 to 4:15 p.m. at City Hall in an event that will be broadcast live on BITV.

It was originally billed as a retreat, to be held at a library conference room and not taped. The original notice said the council would discuss “various issues.”

But several of those issues are weighty – including the city’s capital plan, budget process and the benchmarking study. Officials have since published a detailed agenda and on Friday decided to change venues to allow for greater attendance.

The shift came as welcome news to Councilwoman Debbie Vancil.

“I think it’s a wise decision,” she said. “It was legally noticed, but the notice should clearly reflect the purpose and intent of the meeting.”

With substantive business on the agenda, Vancil said, it makes sense to hold the meeting in a larger space. She said talking business at a retreat is a major departure from past years.

“Our retreats were never about city business,” she said. “We bent over backwards not to talk about business.”

The focus instead was on organizing processes and improving interpersonal relationships. Vancil said she’d still like to have a more traditional, informal retreat with her colleagues, though one isn’t scheduled at this point.

Knobloch said the shift this year was requested by the mayor, who wanted staff members and councilors to get an early jump on what promises to be a busy January.

Councilors have several major issues to deal with, including finishing the capital plan. Given that, Knobloch said he’s okay with the decision to talk business at the retreat, but like Vancil thinks the meeting should be filmed and held at City Hall, especially as the council prepares for a fresh start.

“There was severe public pushback,” Knobloch said of the original plan. “There was a public perception that the idea was to do city business out of sight – this new council won’t do that.”

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