Chapel Hill: Opinion

July 28, 2014

Michael Parker: Council should work smarter, not harder

No one can doubt that the council truly works hard. But one has to wonder, is this level of effort really needed?

The Chapel Hill Town Council’s 2013-14 session was surely the most productive and transformative one in recent memory.

Among the many actions it took were adopting the Central West Small Area Plan, approving the Ephesus Church-Fordham Renewal Plan, restructuring the Town’s Advisory Boards and Commissions, approving the Glen Lennox Development Agreement, adopting the new Bicycle Plan, agreeing to negotiate a development agreement for Obey Creek, approving the sale of the old library, and, of course, adopting the 2014-15 budget.

The council also dealt with many smaller projects and issues such as approving the new Auto Zone, the Children’s Campus of Chapel Hill, and the Old Durham Chapel Hill Road improvement plan; code revisions regarding sidewalk dining; and receiving numerous citizens’ petitions.

In performing all of this work, the council labored mightily, having near weekly business sessions and public hearings that usually ran past 11 p.m., as well as many work sessions. No one can doubt that the council truly worked hard. But one has to wonder, was this level of effort really needed?

I believe that if the council worked “smarter” they wouldn’t have to work so long – and that they would actually accomplish a lot more. The following changes to the way in which the Council does its work could help achieve this end:

• Make greater use of council committees: Virtually all effective legislative and governing bodies use committees to do much of their work. Our Council rarely does, even though it has a number of standing committees. Yet on one of the few times it did so – the Committee on Boards and Commissions developed the initial plan for reorganizing those groups – the work proceeded smoothly and the amount of time that the Council as a whole spent on it was reduced significantly.

This is not to suggest that the committees should have absolute say on any matter. Rather, their recommendations would be brought back to the council for final review and approval. With much of the initial work done by a smaller group, full council deliberations and decision-making could be carried out far more efficiently and quickly.

• Use the Planning Commission to address smaller, more modest projects: Projects such the Children’s Campus don’t need the full weight and time of council deliberations. The Planning Commission can address them. It already reviews and votes on all rezoning and SUP applications. Public comment is also received at their meetings.

The council could establish a size/scope threshold for projects that would not receive full council review. Once the Planning Commission has made its recommendations, such projects would be placed on the consent agenda, which still allows for council deliberation should a member deem it necessary. If not, the Council’s time and effort would be conserved for more pressing items. If this mechanism proves successful, it could be expanded to other issues using other boards.

• Organize and manage the council’s agenda’s more effectively: Many council agendas are a curious mix of major projects, citizen petitions, concept plan reviews, and assorted minor matters. Perhaps one meeting a month could be devoted to many of the smaller, but more numerous, items leaving more council time at other meetings for serious discussion and debate around the matters that are mission critical for our town.

The above represents a significant change in the way that the council conducts its work. And few of us readily welcome change. But if the last session demonstrated anything, it is that the council will approve projects and changes that are important and have significant consequences. Going forward, I hope that they will also rethink how they how they do their vital work for our town by working smarter.

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