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A new alternative to City Council work sessions has been proposed that could result in a more streamlined legislative process with greater opportunities for citizen input. In the manager’s report submitted at the Nov. 8 council meeting, City Manager Janette Bower included a proposal recommending Council to transition away from traditional work sessions to special meetings in which a Committee of the Whole may be convened. Discussion of the relevant agenda topic is permitted within the Committee of the Whole, just as in a work session. Unlike a work session, however, the Council may give direction to city administration at the Committee of the Whole’s conclusion. The change addresses a bottleneck in the current legislative paradigm whereby Council is forbidden from directing city administration within the context of a work session until its following regular session. According to Bower, the Committee of the Whole paradigm stands in compliance with Robert’s Rules of Order, on which the city’s parliamentary procedure is based. 

“It’s an allowable motion and — for lack of a better term — activity,” Bower said. “It’s basically a work session within a special meeting.”

City code permits the city manager to call a special meeting for any business item, adhering to the standard special meeting format — roll call, pledge of allegiance, citizen comments — inside which the Committee of the Whole would effectively function just as a work session, with the distinction that on leaving Committee, the council would immediately be able to give direction to city administration on how to proceed. In her hypothetical example, Bower proposed a scenario in which a new park might be under consideration.

“They discuss the new park, and then once they’re discussing, they come out of the Committee of the Whole,” Bower said. “They can’t even make a motion to come out; they just come out because you cannot make any motions in the Committee of the Whole. For that type of scenario what I envision is that then they would make a motion to direct the city manager to pursue that new park, meaning that at a future meeting, there would have to be a resolution taking action for expenditure of funds and those sorts of items.”

Bower went on to say that the primary benefit of such a format would be to provide greater clarity regarding the will of the council.

“My reasoning for this type of format is to make sure we have consensus on something,” she said. “I don’t want to misread the council or take action that they didn’t want. Say at the work session I thought they wanted this park, and ultimately they didn’t want the park, and I don’t want to do anything that’s contrary to what their direction is. This just provides that format for formal documented action.”

A side benefit of conducting such discussions within the context of a special meeting rather than a work session, she added, is that it provides greater opportunity for citizen comments.

“There can be as many citizen comments as [they] want to put on an agenda,” she said. “Before and after, like we do a regular meeting — that’s fine too. There’s nothing prohibiting citizen comment. In fact it is an activity that’s required at a special meeting.”

Bower added that the format has been tried and tested to great success in municipalities where she has previously held administrative posts. 

“We did this in Palmer,” she said. “I’m pretty sure Wasilla still uses the same format. I know they did at one time; I don’t know about any more, but Palmer, this is exactly what we did, and it worked very well.”

Bower went on to say that while the language is in place within code to allow for such a meeting and that no legislative action is necessary to adopt the format, she did not anticipate such a session would be necessary until January of 2022 at the earliest.

“I don’t think we have anything planned until January to use this type of format, so I don’t anticipate using it until that time frame,” she said. “I don’t believe we have one in December that we would do this with, but our code allows me to call a special meeting, so this is how I would do that.”