Thinking about the budget debates over the last few months and the uptick in public engagement, I feel like a big part of what is challenging for folks about these sorts of municipal issues is how opaque the whole process is.
Some of that may be by design, but I tend to think it is largely structural, a combination of arcane process—often the result of good intentions with unintended consequences—and a lot of very technical finance and accounting practices and terminology that all seems weird, sketchy, and possibly unnecessary if you’re unfamiliar with it.
People show up to these meetings because they have heard something important is going to be discussed—like the school budget—and they want to get involved and have their say. But then they are immediately confronted with this very formal proceeding governed by an inscrutable set of rules that seem arbitrary. Sure, they can take three minutes to make a public comment, but they have to get up in front of a whole room full of people to do it and no one will respond to them.
Then the councilors spend the next few hours talking amongst themselves, and if you’re not familiar with Roberts Rules Of Order, the whole thing seems artificial and complicated. Motions and seconds and calling of the question and are we voting on the motion or on the amendment… on and on. It is made even worse by rules about first readings and second readings and public hearings, with councilors reading complicated legislative language off the page after page in a monotone.
And all of that comes before we even get to the financial business of revolving funds and stabilization funds, free cash and capital expenditures v. operating budgets, and what MGL says you can do with this part of the budget versus that part of the budget. It sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo to the uninitiated, and even the people discussing it get confused.
It’s no wonder that the public watching all of this assumes something dodgy is afoot and that everyone involved is trying to pull something over on them.
Don’t get me wrong—all of this stuff is in place for reasons, and mostly good reasons. You need something like Roberts Rules to organize these sorts of proceedings or else they descend into chaos, and Open Meeting Law requires everything to be stated explicitly and repeatedly on the record precisely so that the public has access to these conversations.
I’m not sure I have a good answer for or solution to this problem. Municipal government and finance largely fall into my “Complicated things are complicated” bucket. There is probably not much that can be done to make them less complicated that will not also have unintended consequences, consequences which would likely be worse than the problems we are trying to solve.
That said, I do think public bodies like the City Council and the School Committee could do a better job of helping the public understand why these processes work the way that they do, and the Mayor’s office could do the same regarding the finances. I think when you’re in the weeds of this kind of stuff all day every day, there can be a tendency to forget that none of it makes any sense to people who don’t have to deal with it all of the time.
But then that brings us back around to the fact that Greenfield is a relatively small city with limited resources. While the Mayor and her staff are paid, none of the members of the City Council or the School Committee are, and most of the city departments are stretched pretty thin doing their actual jobs. Unfortunately, communications is one of the things that tends to fall by the wayside.