This past Wednesday, people in Pittsfield concerned about how the city will go about reopening in-person instruction piled into a virtual videoconference. What happened over the next six hours is worth a postmortem.
We witnessed good-faith governing. But we’re troubled by a missed opportunity to go beyond promises of “transparency” and engage, in the moment, with citizen concerns.
To its credit, the Pittsfield School Committee, seeing that over 200 people were online at 5 p.m., expanded the time allowed for public comment. Members heard from aggrieved teachers, who believe the committee’s plan to bring all students back to hybrid learning violates a union agreement. They listened as a few students appealed for in-person classes to resume, and sports as well. Parents voiced fears about having their children exposed to the novel coronavirus.
Timely, important stuff — all of it.
After listening to everyone who wished to speak, the School Committee missed an opportunity to keep the conversation going. More than five hours later, with a long executive session in the middle, the panel voted to stick to a plan to have most city students back in classrooms at least part of the time after next week’s school break, unless COVID-19 cases increase in the city to levels that warrant new precautions.
Imagine being a person who logged on to the session at 5 p.m. with heartfelt concerns about sending a child back into a classroom. Six hours later, the answer comes. The School Committee holds the authority to decide how it conducts its business, but it squandered an opportunity to remain in the virtual room with all these constituents, stay on the most pressing topic of the night and be, in a word, real. Why wait until reasonable people were long in bed to make a decision?
To be sure, governmental meetings need agendas, rules and protocols. A public comment period should not wag the dog. Municipal bodies need rules of order to ensure that deliberations are fair and thorough. Nonetheless, by waiting so long to come back to the question of reopening, the committee effectively turned its back on all those who cared enough to speak. That could have been avoided if the committee’s chairwoman asked for consent to move the agenda item forward.
Joseph Curtis, the interim superintendent, mentioned “transparency” in the course of the long night. The committee could have built upon that spirit by dealing with the reopening issue sooner. “Transparency” remains an overused word unless representatives of local government engage in the moment with their critics and constituents — and bend their arcane procedures.
As the night wore on, far past the number of hours considered reasonable for work meetings in the private sector, members exhibited fatigue. Member William Cameron apologized for struggling to concisely word a motion. It’s because we’ve been at this for five hours, he said.
This past week, the City Council agreed to limit its meetings to four hours, starting in April. Three hours would be better — and fully possible, if members were held to the kinds of oratorical time limits used by Congress. In the business world, people know better. Smart managers ask people to state their conclusions when they begin speaking. The Economist magazine says long meetings drain energy and waste time. Inc. magazine recommends 30-minute meetings.
A Harvard Business Review article warns that too often, people use meeting time to feel important. We won’t name names, but that syndrome is on exhibit nightly at Pittsfield City Council and School Committee meetings.
The city’s mayor spent the last six hours of her Wednesday workday trudging, with others, through an agenda that could have been handled in half the time. This is not a good use of her executive time. And we believe these marathon meetings drain energy from public debate and discourage citizen involvement at a time when a spirit of progress and possibility is most needed.