It can be hard being a government official, at any level, sitting up there on a dais, because sometimes it’s difficult to see how the body’s behavior is viewed by the public whose interests, hopefully, are being served.

We can’t speak to what’s happening internally, but from the outside looking in, the Vienna Town Council for the last several years – possibly since the death of former Mayor M. Jane Seeman – appears to have declined in efficiency and even decorum in its public meetings. Members have been allowed to pursue pet issues at length, veer off on tangents and attempt to legislate on the fly, all to the detriment of Town Council camaraderie and (more important) the public interest.

Because we want to be constructive in our criticism, here are a few suggestions to get the situation back on track:

• Be self-aware and read the room. When the experienced town attorney – himself a former Council member – urges you not to go down a certain road, heed his advice. This would have spared the Council its embarrassing, and potentially legally catastrophic, discussion in July 2019 about rescinding a recently approved rezoning. The Council – including two brand-new members – eventually declined to vote on the proposal, but it took six hours of testimony and debate to reach that outcome at 2 a.m. (No, some of those watching haven’t forgotten about this. Yes, they’re still sore.)

• When the town clerk intercedes to say that the free-for-all discussions with multiple motions, friendly amendments, counterproposals, bickering and uncontrolled wordsmithing have left her confused as to what’s actually being voted upon, bring yourselves up short and take stock.

• Do not conduct divisive and interminable policy debates during formal public meetings. Hash out disagreements in work sessions and private conversations and seek to find a majority consensus first before putting items on meeting agendas for formal action. Members are, at least in some ways, part of a team and must accept they’re not going to get their way all the time. If members still can’t swallow what’s being proposed, they need to make their points and then graciously fold.

• Do not, as mentioned earlier, wordsmith on the fly. Residents have a right to expect that what the Council is voting on closely resembles the agenda item’s suggested motion(s). Attempting to rewrite motions on the floor is maddening and risks mistakes that subsequently will need correction.

• Respect the process, the Council chamber and Robert’s Rules of Order. This is not a cocktail-party debate or a dinner-table argument. Don’t expound your views at length on every issue or – far worse – keep on arguing after everyone else has tired of the matter and signaled they’re ready to move on.

Mayor Linda Colbert (former Mayor Seeman’s daughter), who presides over meetings, must work to encourage orderliness and, when the situation requires, corral her wayward colleagues. That’s what gavels are for.

Debate is good. Different viewpoints among elected officials are marvelous. Vienna residents are better for them. But there are limits. A little self-discipline can go a long way toward correcting persistent problems.

[https://sungazette.news provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa or Rappahannock Media LLC.]

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