Give council shakeup a worthy try

There is a certain oxymoronic quality to the term “Committee of the Whole.”

What is a committee, after all, if not a subset of the full group? But then, who are we to argue with two centuries of parliamentary procedure, the system that gave order to otherwise unmanageable government proceedings and may well have brought a quicker end to the age of the duel.

The term bursts forth from the Robert’s Rules glossary this week, as the Bainbridge City Council embarks on a monumental (albeit tentative) shift away from the system of fixed committees by which the body has conducted its business for the past 14 years. Friday morning at 10 a.m., the council will convene as the Committee of the Whole – all seven members will discuss issues, but under the usual ground rules, will be proscribed from taking formal action as they might in a regular council meeting.

Some will ask: Why? Is the present system outmoded?

That depends one’s perspective. Backers of the current arrangement enjoy the informality of committee meetings, held around a conference room table and often more of a dialogue with whatever community members happen to show up. Critics, meanwhile, contend that the council’s business is increasingly done outside the public eye, with committee meetings held during regular work hours when the average citizen can’t attend. (Although notes are taken, efforts by

various citizens to have committee meetings taped or broadcast have been fruitless.)

By our observation, the system of standing committees has been generally functional, although it has become more contentious of late as various interests try to maintain a firm grip on particularly influential or politically charged committees – land use comes immediately to mind.

Is it time for a change? For some insight on how the present came to be, we tracked down Andy Maron, who was elected to the first all-island council in 1991 and served for nine years. Turns out that when the then-newly expanded council got under way, Maron was appointed to head a group (along with Bob Chapel and Ben Dysart, names the long-timers will remember) to reexamine committee structure. The old five-member Winslow City Council had used two-member committees, and Maron and his colleagues began by looking at how other councils in the region organized themselves.

“We found that many used committees,” Andy recalled, “and many did not. We eventually decided to continue the Winslow committee concept, to add and rename a few committees, to create a council chair, to require a three-readings process, and to put all this in a council organizational resolution.” Since then, the system has remained essentially the same, although committees have been modified, added and eliminated over time. The concept of a “Committee of the Whole,” Andy notes, is common, although it is called a “workshop.” (For the record, he still tends to favor standing committees for their ability to go in-depth on issues.)

If one can readily find examples of both arrangements, there’s no reason the “Committee of the Whole” won’t work here given willing participants. Any organizational revamp is bound to tread on a few corns, as the players weigh the effects of change on their own spheres of influence. But this move strikes us a forward-thinking plan that could promote early consensus-building on tough issues, and bring the council’s dealings further into the light.

We’re not alone in thinking the Committee of the Whole’s meetings should be televised, but that’s an issue for another day. For now, let us wish the enterprise success.

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