Letters Conclusions in column made in error
To the editor:
I read with interest your "Between the Lines" column published in the Oct. 12 issue of the Plain Talk. It is that column that has prompted me to write this letter. As you know, I rarely write letters to the editor expressing my own views. Similarly, I have never written a letter to express dissatisfaction with opinions that have been expressed in your editorial column or in the letters to the editor section. I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and encourage everyone to express their opinion on any subject at any time regardless of whether or not their opinion parallels my own thinking.
However, after reading your recent column, I feel it is imperative to respond because several of your suggested conclusions are merely based on what you perceive could happen and are not based on fact. So that you know, I have not received a single call from any citizen of Vermillion expressing dissatisfaction with the working sessions � and believe me, residents do not hesitate to call if there is an item they wish to discuss. (As well it should be.) Several individuals have, however, indicated there was a certain focus of your editorial in the Oct. 12 issue that suggests we have council members who are not acting in the best interests of the citizens of Vermillion. It is that "cloud" of distrust that has been planted in the minds of citizens that causes me concern. Therefore, I would like to take a moment to share with your readers, if I may, the other side of the story. In your column, you wrote:
"One of the outcomes of the work sessions are more smoothly conducted city council meetings. No longer do they drag on for four hours, like they did at times before the work sessions were implemented. But as the regular meetings have grown more efficient, it finally dawned on us. If meetings are wrapping up much sooner, it's not a stretch to reason that more and more work is being conducted at the noon gatherings."
By your own admission, you indicated you have never attended one of the work sessions. I would suggest that you review the items listed on the published city council agendas for the meetings following the initiation of the work sessions to see if perhaps that has had some influence on the length of the meetings. There has been a noticeable change in the number of agenda items as well as an absence of items generating prolonged debate by members of the council as well as the community. I would submit to you that the number of agenda items and the subject matter of the agenda items more directly effect the length of the council meetings than do the recently scheduled work sessions. I will tell you for a fact � there has never been one item of business conducted during any of the scheduled work sessions. A simple review of the minutes of those sessions will clearly indicate that the suggestion that more work is being conducted at the noon gatherings is a total misrepresentation of the facts.
I would like to take a minute to explain how the working session concept was initiated so that everyone will understand why we are trying them. When I became mayor I found myself taking time each Monday to go over the agenda with the city manager, the city finance officer and other staff (as needed) so that I would be prepared for the regular Monday evening meetings. Spending a few minutes with the staff to gain a better understanding of the content of the items listed on the agenda seemed like a good common-sense approach to prepare for each meeting. I discussed this with the city manager and he was aware of work sessions occurring in many cities demonstrating the fact that work sessions are a common practice in the United States. After a few short weeks I thought this same opportunity might be beneficial to other council members.
At that time, I explained to the full council what I was doing each week to prepare for the regular Monday meetings. At that same time I suggested that we may want to consider scheduling work sessions to permit any interested council member to have the same opportunity to ask questions about agenda items and/or to request additional information in advance so that it would be available at the regular council meeting later that evening. Your editorial seems to suggest that such interaction between members of the council during these sessions is questionable. I want to emphasize this time is an opportunity for the council members to ask questions to staff. This is simply preparation for making decisions during the meetings, not totally unlike the printed information that is provided in each packet prior to a council meeting.
It was made clear that attendance was totally voluntary and all members of the council understood that there would never be business conducted at any of the informational work sessions. The intent and understanding of each and every council member was that the work sessions were to be discussion sessions only. I need to make the statement once more � one only needs to check the official minutes to learn that there has never been any business conducted. Also, a check of the minutes will show that there has never been a session when all members of the council were present. In fact, on only three occasions have there been sufficient members present to establish a quorum.
There is another statement in your "Between the Lines" column that causes me great concern. You wrote:
"We feel so strongly about this because � and we admit it's taken a long time for us to realize this � a meeting of city council members with no audience members present shares all of the characteristics of a "secret" meeting, or one held in executive session."
It appears as though you have reached the conclusion that there have never been any citizens present during the work sessions. Again, if you had taken time to attend one or more of the sessions, taken time to visit with me, other council members, or perhaps a member of the city staff you would have learned that several citizens have been present during the work sessions. To suggest that the city council is looking for ways to conduct a secret meeting or to have executive session type meetings to avoid the
pation of the general public is simply untrue and unfair. Anyone who has lived in Vermillion for any length of time knows very well that having such "secret" meetings you have suggested would simply not go undetected. I am also disappointed that you would suggest that members of the council would actually participate in meetings that would exclude the public. I can personally recall time and time again when special efforts have been made to schedule special council meetings, schedule special hearings, and schedule special information gathering sessions to ensure that the public is informed and given every opportunity to participate and share their thoughts with the council.
In closing, I want to refer to your final comments:
"When much of that business is conducted in a public meeting that no one can attend because of its awkward timing, it's no longer a public meeting. All of the city council's business should be conducted during its regular Monday night meetings."
I hate to be repetitive but I must say it once again, the public has participated in the working sessions and the fact of the matter is � no business has been conducted during the working sessions. Regarding your reference to regular Monday night meetings � if you would take time to review the past actions of the council, you would discover that there have been many occasions when meetings of the council have been held outside the regular first and third Monday evenings. There have also been numerous special sessions that have been scheduled for times other that the regular 7:30 p.m. sessions.
I believe it is unfortunate that an editor of a newspaper, without the benefit of fact, would make such strong assertions and plant such thoughts of suspicion and perceived possible deception into the minds of the citizens of Vermillion. I believe we have eight fine citizens of Vermillion serving on the city council and I believe it is a terrible injustice to suggest that they are attempting to disenfranchise the public in any manner whatsoever.
If I am wrong in my understanding of the present situation and wrong in my explanation of their actions and my own, I will be quick to apologize and admit my error of judgment. Likewise, if there have been statements made in the editorial column that may also be errors of judgment or errors of fact, I believe it would also be a reasonable expectation to have those statements better explained.
Roger L. Kozak, Mayor
City of Vermillion