08/11/10: Obstacles to public service in Norfolk

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

CITIZEN legislators are a part of the fabric of our country. The desire to serve the people drives some to seek elected — or appointed — office. Portsmouth’s new mayor and Norfolk’s newest council member are just two examples of those who have offered themselves for service.

But such service requires personal sacrifice, something I was reminded of as I listened to Norfolk’s newly elected Councilman Andy Protogyrou speak at a League of Women Voters meeting recently.

Protogyrou, who took office July 1, was questioned about his vote against a bond issue. An attorney, he patiently explained the process leading up to and including the weekly meetings.

The council members receive a package each Friday evening containing the agenda and supporting documents, which means, of course, that they spend time on the weekend reviewing the material. Any questions have to wait until Monday, when the city staff is back at work.

Norfolk council meets every Tuesday. On the first and third Tuesday, the formal session begins at 2:30 p.m., while on the second, fourth, and fifth (if there is one) Tuesday, the sessions begin at 7 p.m.

Each of the formal sessions is preceded by an informal session, which is where a lot of the work gets done. These sessions, which are open to the public, include briefings and presentations on the agenda items of the day.

Is it any wonder, then, that few people are able to serve on the council?

More are willing, but the timing and frequency of the meetings make serving impossible.

Other cities do things differently. Virginia Beach’s formal meetings start at 6 p.m., Portsmouth at 6:30 p.m. and both Suffolk and Chesapeake at 7 p.m. Each also holds separate work sessions, generally earlier in the day.

Norfolk’s council should consider meeting just twice a month and only in the evenings. Such a change would serve multiple purposes.

First, it would broaden the pool of applicants. While the number of candidates in this past May’s elections was the largest in 40 years, typically Norfolk’s elections draw fewer than the surrounding cities, the result being that incumbents are re-elected without opposition.

Some may say that the lower numbers reflect that Norfolk’s voters are satisfied with those already in office. Given the constraints, I’m not convinced   that is the case.

Second, it would allow the citizens to be more informed and more engaged.

Let’s face it: not many citizens have the ability to take time off from work to attend council meetings in the middle of the afternoon. And that may not even be the biggest hurdle to citizen engagement.

As a subscriber to the city’s listserv, I receive an e-mail, generally late on Friday afternoon, containing the agenda. Typically, the documents supporting the agenda are not available until Monday morning.

What may appear to be innocuous on the agenda may end up being pretty important once the supporting documents are reviewed, leaving little time for the citizens to engage their representatives in conversation about the issue prior to a vote.

Such was the case we saw earlier this year when a proposed change to the city’s charter appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, on the agenda. Alert citizens caught it and sounded the alarm, and the measure was defeated. How many items slip through because the citizens are not aware of them?

Finally, consider what such a move could do for the members of council themselves: They could be better informed and more engaged. Protogyrou voted against the bond package because he couldn’t get an answer on where the money was going.

Bimonthly meetings would allow the agenda package to go out earlier, and any resulting questions to be resolved earlier, which should lead to better decision-making.

Thomas Jefferson said, “There is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him.” With small changes in the way Norfolk council operates, we can all participate in the repayment of that debt.