Dalton meetings to the point

Dalton meetings to the point

February 21st, 2011 by Mariann Martin in News

DALTON, Ga. - A January meeting of the Dalton mayor and City Council lasted five minutes and 53 seconds.

Members were called to order; cited the Pledge of Allegiance; approved minutes for the previous meeting; voted to change wording of a city ordinance; appointed council members to committees; voted to appoint a city attorney, a city fire marshal, a mayor pro-tem and a member of the animal control board; announced observances of Martin Luther King Jr. Day; and remembered a former public works department head who passed away.

Then they adjourned.

That was a little less time than they usually spend, but the twice-a-month council and mayor meetings held at Dalton City Hall have gotten noticeably shorter in the last three years.

In 2010, the longest meeting was 49 minutes and the shortest was five minutes, according to taped sessions posted on the city's website. The 21 taped meetings averaged 20 minutes each, with two meetings not taped.

In 2009, the 22 taped meetings averaged 24 minutes each, and in 2008, the 14 taped meetings posted on the website averaged almost 29 minutes each.

Dalton Mayor David Pennington jokes he has a short attention span, but he said the real reason for the short meetings is because everyone does their job before the meetings.

The four City Council members serve as liaisons to various committees and city departments, where the real work of running the city takes place, Pennington said. Those committee meetings are also public meetings.

"The problem with a lot of elected officials is they butt their way into things they shouldn't," Pennington said. "We don't get into day-to-day operations, and we don't micromanage."

If a council member makes a recommendation about a committee, the rest of the council generally takes the recommendation, Pennington said. Many of the votes are unanimous, minutes of the meetings show.

"We got together and agreed on a plan several years ago. If it fits that plan, we execute it. If it doesn't, we don't," Pennington said.

All discussion and decisions about government business take place in publicly called meetings, Pennington noted, in accordance with the Georgia Open Meetings Act.

That law essentially states that government agencies must conduct business in public, according to Lauren Kane, communications director for the Georgia attorney general.

Councilman Dick Lowrey, the only council member serving during the previous administration, said meetings have become shorter since Pennington was elected mayor in 2008.

"David is a little more efficient," he said. "We usually talk about the issues [in committee] before the meeting and know about them."

Videos show that the City Council meetings are sparsely attended, with little participation during the public comment portion.

Lowrey said he would like to see more public participation.

"I can see that shorter meetings may have something to do with people not coming," he said. "But we've never had good attendance."

During a speech at a tea party event last week, Pennington urged residents to become more involved in their local government and to attend public meetings.

When asked if five-minute meetings with little discussion might discourage public attendance, Pennington said he would make the meetings as long as necessary.

"We'll discuss issues if anyone has questions. Anyone is welcome to comment," he said. "We'll stay there as long as we need to."

Newly elected Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has called for legislation to strengthen the state's open records and open meetings acts, Kane said.

"We are trying to clarify the law and strengthen it," she said.

Some of the proposed changes include raising the maximum penalty for a violation of either to $1,000, with subsequent violations by the same agency costing $2,500.

Under current law, the maximum fine for a violation of the Open Records Act is $100, and a violation of the Open Meetings Act is a $500 fine.