Cape council aims to fix 'smoky room' perception

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Cape Girardeau City Council members say they don't rubber stamp the wishes of city staff.

But public perception is entirely different, they say. "People feel decisions are being made behind closed doors," said Councilwoman Marcia Ritter. "That perception is still out there."

Council members discussed the issue at Monday night's regular meeting.

The issue has surfaced several times in recent months, prompted partly by councilwoman Loretta Schneider's dissatisfaction with how study sessions are conducted.

The council hasn't reached agreement on the issue. Mayor Jay Knudtson said he doesn't know if there is a suitable solution.

Local cable broadcasts of council meetings are now displaying the summary titles of ordinances being voted on. Council members welcomed that move.

But the public sometimes sees little discussion of an issue in the regular session. Council members said that sometimes the real discussion occurs in the study sessions prior to the regular meetings.

Study sessions are open to the public and news media, but they aren't televised and few city residents ever attend those meetings. Study sessions begin at 5 p.m. in the council chamber, two hours before the start of the regular meeting.

"There are no decisions made in smoke-filled rooms," the mayor said.

Councilman Charlie Herbst said televising study sessions would allow the public to witness some of the council discussions.

But Knudtson said some study sessions are little more than a brief review of the council agenda and aren't worth televising.

Even in the regular meeting, some issues are routine matters that need little discussion, the mayor said.

"The cold hard fact is a lot of what we do isn't very sexy," said Knudtson.

Councilman Matt Hopkins likes the status quo. He said he hasn't heard an outcry from the public for the council to talk more at meetings.

Knudtson said some people have questioned why city attorney Eric Cunningham reads the titles of city ordinances so quickly that they can't understand them.

But the mayor has repeatedly explained that the city attorney reads the second and third readings of ordinances quickly because the council's already given initial approval to the measures at a previous council meeting.

Schneider has suggested holding study sessions on a different day than council meetings to allow for more discussion of city business. Jackson, for example, holds study sessions on the second and fourth Monday of the month and its regular meetings on the first and third Monday.

"I think we would give more attention to the issues that we are voting on," she said.

Schneider said it also would give the council time to review issues and concerns of city residents. "I think sometimes citizen complaints deserve some discussion," she said.

But her fellow council members have said they don't want to add more meetings to their busy schedules.

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