District 22 Councilman Eric Crafton was but a few seconds into a speech during last week's Metro Council meeting when he was interrupted by Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors.
Crafton was speaking on a much-discussed bill proposed by the Mayor Karl Dean administration to begin land acquisition south of Broadway to make room for the proposed Music City Center.
“Councilman Crafton, you do know that this will be assigned to committee for discussion and then brought back to the floor?” Neighbors said, cutting off Crafton.
“I am very well aware of that process. I’d like to have my comments, if I may,” Crafton said.
The interruption by Neighbors was a case-in-point about her style of conducting Metro Council meetings. She efficiently and expediently navigates an agenda, which has earned her admiration from second-term members, who remember many late Tuesday nights in the previous Council.
“In the last Council term, it was basically a free-for-all at every Council meeting,” District 4 Councilman Michael Craddock said.
The primary tool Neighbors has used to speed along meetings is to encourage members to discuss and debate bills in Council committee meetings, instead of on the floor for official meetings.
“What we’re trying to do, we wanted to give some strength to the committees and let folks have the debate, the discussion, talk about the details of the bills in the committee system,” Neighbors said. “And then when you get to the floor, all of those questions have been answered and you can debate the merits of the bill.”
But a look at attendance records  maintained by the Metro Clerk’s office shows that committee meetings are not attended nearly as well as regular Council meetings. In fact some Council members, such as Crafton, attend less than 50 percent of their committee meetings.
Early isn’t easy
The poor attendance records for committee meetings is due in large part to the fact the meetings take place earlier in the day than Council meetings, which begin at 6:30 p.m.
District 25 Councilman Sean McGuire pointed out that Council members are part-time legislators, most of whom have full-time jobs and other responsibilities. McGuire has attended 100 percent of the regular Council meetings since he was elected in 2007, but has attended just 64 percent of his committee meetings.
“Committees are difficult to get to sometimes, especially just when they are scheduled. Sometimes they are at 4 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. and it’s just not feasible to get there,” McGuire said. “Whereas a Council meeting that starts at 6:30 is much easier to get to.”
With several big-ticket items coming down the pike, including land acquisition for the new convention center and the budget process, some members believe it would be appropriate for debate to take place in regular Council meetings.
Craddock said there needs to be a balance between efficiently running Council meetings and ensuring debate is properly carried out on critical issues. Craddock pointed out that only the budget and finance committee and the public works committee are televised on Metro 3, which limits the public’s ability to track debate on certain legislation.
“I think there needs to be some balance. I don’t want the pendulum to swing too far the other way,” said Craddock, who has never missed a regular Council meeting. “I think the people of this city, the taxpayers, the constituents, deserve to hear debate, especially on major issues that affect them and their pocketbooks. Unfortunately we do not have a system where they can hear debate in committee.”
In the coming weeks, the budget and finance committee will begin departmental budget hearings, many of which will take place early enough in the day that many members will be unable to attend.
“It’s an imperfect system,” McGuire conceded. “But I applaud the vice mayor for making the committee meetings more important and for making them the forum where debate occurs.”
Joining Craddock and McGuire with perfect Metro Council meeting attendance since the 2007 election are Council members Jim Gotto, Jim Forkum, Frank Harrison, Duane Dominy and Bo Mitchell.
Crafton has the worst attendance for meetings, having missed 11 times since being re-elected in 2007. District 20 Councilwoman Edith Taylor Langster has missed 10 meetings, but she had knee surgery last year and was out of commission for several weeks. District 13 Councilman Carl Burch has missed nine meetings.
Crafton also has the worst attendance records for committee meetings, having attended just 24 percent since being re-elected.
Slightly better than Crafton is District 33 Councilman Robert Duvall at 26 percent. District 19 Councilwoman Erica Gilmore (44 percent) and Burch (47 percent) are next.
By comparison, District 31 Councilman Parker Toler has only missed one of his 70 committee meetings this term. Toler is followed by Gotto, who has only missed two of 84 committee meetings. Gotto is also the Council representative on the Planning Commission, where he must attend meetings every other week.
Neighbors acknowledged that Council members do have other jobs that affect committee attendance, but admitted it does not take away the responsibility to their constituents.
“I know there are a few folks that if you looked at their record on the surface, it would appear they have not been attending their committee meetings,” Neighbors said, adding she monitors attendance every quarter. “But the truth is they can’t get away from their jobs.
“We’re part-time legislators and if your day job has a requirement, you have to stay there until it is completed. It’s their responsibility to their constituents. They are the folks they have to answer to, and they are the folks that elected them.”