Starting next month, the Raleigh City Council will have an “informal” meeting over lunch before each regular council meeting. While open to the public, the meetings will be held in a small conference room and won’t be televised.
New City Manager Ruffin Hall recommended the lunch sessions as a way to discuss issues and ask questions in a “more informal setting” before taking a vote during the regular meeting.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane agreed that the sessions would be beneficial.
“The advantage of a lunch meeting is it allows us to talk about what’s coming up on the agenda,” she said.
The luncheons mark the first major change in years to how the Raleigh City Council conducts its business. Elsewhere in North Carolina, Durham and Charlotte both hold “work sessions” before each formal meeting.
But in Wilmington, the practice drew fire last year because discussing issues outside the view of public-access televisions raises transparency concerns. Critics say debate occurs during work sessions, leaving just a formal vote for the main meetings.
One councilman in Wilmington said that all discussions should be videotaped to be “truly transparent,” the Port City Daily reported. And last month, the Wilmington council voted to bring cameras into its breakfast sessions.
The Raleigh Television Network has made city government more accessible, broadcasting all meetings of the City Council, Planning Commission, Appearance Commission and other boards. Videos of the meetings can be streamed anytime on the city’s website.
Joey Stansbury, a conservative activist who closely follows city government, said the new lunch meetings should be available on video for residents who can’t attend.
“I don’t see why they can’t follow the current procedure of televising this session,” he said, adding that he hopes council members won’t reach a consensus before the public hearing process. “It’s well worth considering how the public input will figure into this.”
March will also mark the first time in recent memory that council members are regularly served meals. Hall said he doesn’t yet have a cost estimate for the food but said it will be “relatively inexpensive.”
The new meeting schedule comes after the council had planned to spend two days in January in Wilmington holding a retreat. Had the location not changed because of snow, it would have been the first out-of-county meeting in two decades. The idea prompted concerns about cost from some council members.
The council voted unanimously to hold the lunch sessions, though Councilman John Odom voiced concerns about discussing agenda items in advance and getting “into a public debate without the public being able to see us.”
Hall said many of the topics presented at the lunch meetings wouldn’t require a formal vote later. For example, he noted that a presentation Tuesday about bridge replacements on Capital Boulevard could have been held in a work session because no vote was needed.
The first lunch meeting will start at 11:30 a.m. March 4 in Conference Room 305 at Raleigh City Hall.