In mid-March, Mayor Brian Loughmiller urged the City Council to have the McKinney Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the McKinney Community Development Corporation (MCDC) meet in the Council Chambers instead of their small conference room in a bank building where they now office. All of the councilmembers agreed. Or at least nobody disagreed. And it happened!
What a difference it makes. A small conference room with only translucent windows inside a suite of offices inside a bank office building miles from City Hall was not very inviting. The Council Chambers inside City Hall are accessible as soon as you walk in the door. It’s inviting with the openness and clear glass walls making it quite a different experience. The meetings are also videotaped. You can go and watch live, sit at home and watch live or you can go back to see the recording after the meeting if you cannot attend.
I wish McKinney had a better City Hall that incorporated all of the city departments and made a more complete statement about the seat of government, its openness to citizens and anyone desiring to go to one place the public owns to see with their own eyes where the business of government is conducted. The current City Hall is, in fact, an old bank building. You can’t approach it or even see it until you are in front of it. There is no curb appeal, so to speak. For a city our size, it is a little bit of an embarrassment. However, I’ll save structure for a future blog. It isn’t the house but rather the home that this blog is focused.
Reading through minutes of a meeting is a cold and clinical process. In fact, most minutes are just sterile, skeletal representations that a meeting event occurred, that certain topics were discussed and that votes were recorded. A video recording of the meeting allows one to see which board members have done their homework. There is a joke in city government about the sound of council packets that were delivered days before being opened just as a meeting starts. I watched the most recent MCDC meeting. I was so impressed with the constructive and deep level of questioning as groups made their pitch for money to support their projects. Board members asked about O&M costs beyond the initial funding. They asked about repair and replacement reserves. They asked questions about their financial statements – including their balance sheets! And the observer got to hear the answers. One can see, on record, whether the proposer had done their homework. Now that is a giant step toward transparency. You don’t get that from reading
I watched the most recent MCDC meeting. I was so impressed with the constructive and deep level of questioning as groups made their pitch for money to support their projects. Board members asked about O&M costs beyond the initial funding. They asked about repair and replacement reserves. They asked questions about their financial statements – including their balance sheets! And the observer got to hear the answers. One can see, on record, whether the proposer had done their homework. Now that is a giant step toward transparency. You don’t get that level of understanding from reading minutes, because it’s not in a typical set of minutes.
You also get to hear the tone of voice and see the facial expressions. That’s important. I once emailed the City Council about a meeting the night before where the words coming out of their mouths didn’t match the expressions on their faces. Those are important signals to understand the basis for a vote or even an effort to cloak an approval or a denial of a request in political babbletalk. Once a developer who generally got his way on any request started getting some hard questions from a couple of councilmembers. It was almost funny for the developer’s cronies on the council to sit up straight, pull up to the microphone and tried to rescue the vote they thought was another slam dunk.
You can also see the potential of future leaders headed toward council elections. There is an unwritten rule, it seems, that you need to pay your dues on some boards and committees before you are qualified for being on the City Council. I don’t fully embrace that concept, but it makes sense to show the commitment and to gain the experience. I’m always amazed at council candidates with a burning desire to serve a city who then disappear after an election until the next one come up timed with their burning desire to serve.
Experience is good as long as one is not co-opted into the McKinney culture where certain people are just rotated over the years and become desensitized to the duties of independence and ethical judgment. As I have written about before, I sincerely believe that some actions have been taken by board members who, in their mind, have acted no differently than those before them and those beside them. A question I don’t think is ever asked of a council candidate or a board applicant is this: how many meetings have you attended or videos of meetings have you watched or minutes of meetings have you read from the most recent 12 months? If the answer is none, that is not consistent with burning desire nor a signal the candidate will do their homework.
The Educational Value.
I have taught MPA graduate courses at SMU and UNT in past years. And, as I have mentioned before, I am still a student in what I consider the most wonderful laboratory in the world – local government. Earlier this week, there was a strategic planning workshop for the MEDC Board. I am about a quarter way through the 6-hour video. It is rich with instruction about economic development issues. It is facilitated by an expert, but the Board participation and dialogue are invaluable if one is interested in learning about core municipal issues. Surprisingly and pleasingly, the Board is brutally honest about the strengths and weaknesses of McKinney. There isn’t a better classroom. There isn’t a better laboratory. You can be in the physician’s gallery overlooking real open-heart surgery while in the comfort of your home. Thank you, City of McKinney City Council!
In fact, if you considered every council meeting, MEDC/MCDC meeting and P&Z meeting to be one graduate course class night, one could be equipped in one year to be the most knowledgeable elected official or candidate for City Council who ever walked the earth. Even for a citizen not interested in being on the council or a board or committee, this is great Civics 101 on steroids. An added benefit is the professional input from staff and consultants. One of the saddest observations I’ve made in my lifetime is how the vast majority of citizens cannot articulate the most basic issues and processes of the municipal world that is wholly devoted to making their lives the safest and highest quality possible.
The City has made a heavy investment in information and materials on their Web site. Our Web site. There are years of financial documents and hours of meeting videos. Some people enjoy book clubs, gardening clubs other study groups for many reasons. One is to simply enjoy that treasured reward that comes from learning something new; to be able to converse about topics not previously explored. If you were to examine the rewards, they would include being able to understand the vernacular of newly discovered areas. They include concepts and philosophical foundations for community life. But they also include or could include real basics. Interesting basics. Just exactly how are water and sewer lines tested for leaks? What are the unintended consequences of a landscape ordinance passed last year? What is happening at today’s council and committee meetings that are shaping our future – or better or worse? LFM