Long Nights with Local Government

Photo via CRA Associates

Tuesday nights my freshman year usually consisted of one thing: public meetings. That’s right. I spent the bulk of my Tuesday nights freshman year sitting listening to debates by town and county officials regarding everything from Wegman’s to “The Goat Patrol.” I quickly learned local meetings could be anything from boring as watching paint dry, to a lively discussion about the future of the town itself.

But the one thing they all had in common was how long they took. Meetings could last well into the night. On one notable occasion, I remained for five hours, till midnight, listening to Chapel Hill council members debate the merits of a sidewalk and the placement of trees at the Sancar Turkish Community Center. I didn’t get the story filled until well into the morning. I think my editors at Daily Tar Heel were surprised I showed up to write again.

Photo via CRA Associates

This is all to say my attention was immediately captured by the news out of the Town of Chapel Hill’s Council retreat at the turn of the month. Mayor Pam Hemminger and members of the council discussed shrinking the body from nine to seven members. Hemminger said the council debated the issue because other cities have made the change in an effort to shorten their meetings. This comes on the heels of the resignation of council member Rachel Schaevitz which has left the town with a vacancy.

Reducing the number of council members may just work. My anecdotal experience as a city reporter points to a possible success case: Carrboro. The Carrboro Town Council (RIP Aldermen meetings) have a council of seven including the mayor and I don’t remember attending a meeting late into the night when covering the Carrboro council. While my roommates who work in labs will point out my extremely small sample size, I have a feeling seven might just be the lucky number. The Carrboro Town Council always featured lively and interesting debate (re: “Goat Patrol”) and it always felt there was a wide diversity of opinions and thought being presented.

While there is concern shrinking the Chapel Hill Town Council will cause valuable perspectives to be lost, I’ll be the first to say any way local government meetings can be made more accessible to the public is a welcome development. Holding meetings for hours on end makes it hard for members of the public to stay engaged. Heck, I struggled to stay engaged as a reporter. I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be a normal citizen who was interested in the last piece of business on the agenda at the end of the night and having to wait for hours on end before the issue came up. Having meetings conducted in a reasonable amount of time makes it easier to be transparent, concise, and productive. Most importantly it helps make it easier for more people to become involved and active in their local community.

I have no idea what the Chapel Hill Town Council will decide. However, if you want to find out first make sure to follow my friends at the DTH covering Orange County in the OC Report and subscribe to The OC Report newsletter.