Tuesday, October 7, 2008

When Information becomes Knowledge and Knowledge is Power

Exactly four Tuesdays from today is Election Day. You can still register to vote, if you haven't and/or practice your excuses when you don't. But please, for both our sakes, stay clear of me if you choose not to decide, because you still have made a choice.

That was the commercial, but here's what I've been fretting about for some time. As the oldest child in a large family, fretting is more than a hobby and closer to an art form. If it were to be included in the Summer Olympics, you'd have seen me at the medals podium, worrying about the way the bunting was hanging from the rostrum.

We in the Rose City, many of the almost 37,000 of us, meet on a regular basis in an almost bewildering number of advisories, boards, commissions and committees to seek the betterment of some aspect of where we live. I tend to go to meetings for the crullers and coffee and stay around because I'm intrigued at how 'power' grows from knowing things that others around you do not know and how hard some work to keep others from being in the loop. Maybe it's human nature-I've never seen any of the squirrels I feed display it-but it appears many times, 'for me to look good, you need to look bad.' (with that formula, you just plug in the names or 'values', as my math teachers used to say, into the equation).

We have, as you've realized if you drop into this space on Mondays, City Council meetings every other Monday for the most part. Pretty often, though not always, before the City Council meetings there are 'information meetings' or 'workshops' where, from the ones I've attended, various groups and folks from within and without the City, at their own initiative or at the request of the Council, offer a presentation with additional background and information on a specific topic.

Back in March, I attended a workshop on the the 350th Anniversary of the founding of Norwich and in the months since have attended others to include a discussion the City Council had with the Chief of Police and a presentation by seCTer, both of which concluded with various Council members expressing a desire to continue the discussions but never actually setting a date for that. I remember being socially active when I was a wee slip of a lad and if I had a dime for everyone whom I was 'definitely gonna call' or who was going to call me, I could buy just about anything my heart desires.
Promises cost nothing, except credibility when left unfulfilled.

Not that long ago, I attended/participated in a workshop with the City Council on a draft of a code of Ethics a previous City Council had created a committee to develop. The current council accepted the report as part of a very brief information workshop (with the promise to follow up) in March and directed Corporation Counsel and Human Resources Manager to review and comment upon (I assumed 'and report back' but the Feast of the Assumption is 15 August).

The Council held a (2nd) informational session with the now-disbanded Ethics Review Commission on 15 September and it seemed (from where I sat, in the back near the exit (as always)) the HR Manager had notes but no one had spoken with the now-absent Corporation Counsel because, and here's my issue, there are no official notes of anything that happen in an informational meeting. So a somewhat desultory conversation went on between some on the Council and some on the former Ethics Review Commission. Again, aside from notes any of the alderpersons may have made as individuals, and (of course) my compulsive journal keeping, no record of that workshop exists either.

Meddling busy-body that I am, I sent this to my City Council the following morning.
"Gentlemen,
.... My concern and curiosity are about the informational meetings held on a regular basis before City Council meetings. Nowhere on the City of Norwich's website do I ever learn the subject of these meetings BEFORE they are held, which is disquieting, but not my primary issue. If a topic....is important enough to come before the City Council, it should be important enough to do so before the City Council during an actual Council meeting.


....(A previous) City Council may have felt a less formal opportunity to gain information would be more effective and valuable if a record were not being kept...I appreciate....the idea of trading information for a formal record, except, again, 'if it's important enough to come before the Council, it should be during a Council meeting.' At a City Council meeting, recordings are made, notes are taken, minutes are published, reviewed, corrected, amended, approved and can be reviewed by anyone with a concern.....

...I strongly urge all of you in doing the city's business, to either effectively and efficiently document every information workshop, from promulgation of the topic, the time and the participants, to/through the minutes of actual workshop itself, or restructure City Council meetings to incorporate matters and discussions that are, at this time, off the radar and beyond the scope of the public record. As always, though I often forget to say it, thank you for being who you are, where you are."

We get the government we deserve--sometimes that works to our favor, but we have to work for it to happen and it involves all of us. Head shaking and tsk-tsking doesn't assist what Teddy Roosevelt called 'the man in the arena' who (man and woman), after all, is in the area to help all of us, deserving and undeserving alike.
-bill kenny

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