South Portland ponders how to streamline meetings

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The city is looking into ways to streamline council meetings, to avoid having the sessions drag into the early morning hours.

City Manager Scott Morelli, along with other staff members at an Aug. 14 City Council workshop, presented ideas on what can be done, including eliminating bi-monthly workshops, making appointments an annual item, and moving staff reports to the end of the council agenda.

Volatile issues like regulation of short-term rentals and approving affordable housing projects in the city have at times pushed meetings past 1 a.m. The council votes on whether to continue once the clock strikes 11 p.m. Residents have complained they cannot remain at meetings when they run so late, even though important business is being conducted.

Morelli said some of the ideas will be easy to implement, while others require a significant change in the way the council conducts business. 

Councilors were mixed on the handful of proposals, but supported a three-month trial of conducting business meetings instead of workshops, and moving the city manager and council committee reports. The workshop was informational and no formal votes were taken. 

By transitioning workshops to business meetings, there would be three to four business meetings a month when action could be taken, rather than having purely informational and discussion-based meetings.

Morelli suggested every meeting of the council could be considered a business meeting and the new business portion of the agenda could be a “discussion” on an item that is not yet ready for a final vote.

Councilor Eben Rose, whose term is up in November, said he has always felt workshops were not the business of the council — that the body should deal only with ordinances, orders and resolutions, and meetings held purely for discussion purposes perpetuated a “wink and a nod” way of doing things.

He conceded workshops are a way to hash out problems, but said the council’s time and business should be preserved for action. 

Councilor Kate Lewis said she initially did a double take when reviewing the item, and called it a creative approach to managing an agenda. She said she was concerned the change could limit discussion, but added it could also be an effective way to manage time if items are brought up several times in a business meeting, but for a shorter period. 

Another option was allowing gifts and donations to the city be accepted by staff without the matter going before the council. However, Lewis, who has a background in fundraising, said immediacy in recognizing donations is important, and other councilors agreed residents should be publicly acknowledged for their generosity. 

Councilors were cool to the proposal to have people sworn in en masse to boards and committees once a year in May. Councilor Claude Morgan said it doesn’t make sense to wait a year to fill a vacancy, because there are so many variables that could make serving on a board difficult for some residents who decide they need to leave the post.

Removing awarding most requests for proposals, or RFPs, from agendas was another time-saving suggestion. Instead, staff would be authorized to award RFPs that have been budgeted.

Now, any item in excess of $15,000 that is not subject to competitive bids must go to the council, along with any competitively bid item that exceeds $45,000.

Staff is proposing any item bid on competitively not be awarded by the council, including items pertaining to the School Department, such as approving a new bus or maintenance. Items that would still appear before council would include any non-competitively bid item exceeding $15,000, Morelli said. 

“We believe that these changes would streamline council agendas while also ensuring those types of bids that require the most scrutiny still appear before Council,” Morelli told the council.  

Juliette Laaka can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or at jlaaka@theforecaster.net.  Follow her on Twitter @JulietteLaaka.

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