The Missoula City Council again will consider a lighter meeting schedule.
A couple of years ago, the council talked about meeting every other week instead of – generally – on the first four Mondays of the month. It didn't get far, but this time, council president Marilyn Marler and Councilwoman Caitlin Copple are pitching the idea to drop the third meeting of the month.
"A lot of times, we meet, and the meetings are less than an hour because everything is on the consent agenda," Marler said of the matters the council adopts in one fell swoop.
When development in Missoula was going gangbusters before the recession, council meetings could last hours as property owners, neighbors and other interested parties debated things like density and agricultural use. Council members also worked on ambitious projects that took hours in public sessions, like new regulations related to drivers and cellphones, the controversial granny suite or paying for sidewalks.
Now, development has cooled, major initiatives from the council haven't been in the works, and some meetings have adjourned in less than 30 minutes. Councilman Adam Hertz will take up the matter in the Administration and Finance Committee in January, and he said it could be cost effective for the city.
"We show up, and the meeting can be 15 minutes long, sometimes," Hertz said. "So I think it's just something worth considering that can save city staff time, maybe save the city money and not just have meetings for the sake of having meetings."
Last time around, the discussion of cutting meetings led to talk of cutting council stipends, Hertz said. The 12 council members are elected as part-time ward representatives earning benefits and roughly $1,100 a month.
"I've maintained the Missoula City Council is overpaid, and certainly the highest paid city council in the state. But I also know how to pick my battles," said Hertz, a minority member.
Mayor John Engen runs the council meetings, but he has been known to be absent and let Marler hold the gavel when the agenda is especially light. However, he said the agenda mostly doesn't dictate his presence.
"My absences tend to have less to do with the meeting agenda and more to do with mine; sick, vacation, rare conflicting engagement," Engen said in an email.
He also said the council can always add a meeting if an urgent matter needs attention.
"I've never believed in meeting for the sake of having a meeting, so if we can take care of the citizens' business in three meetings, which I think we can, we should," Engen said.
In Billings, 10 council members are elected to part-time posts. According to the city budget, they receive a stipend of $600 a month, and the mayor, also part time, receives $800 a month.
"We have two work sessions, usually the first and third Monday night," said Laurie Jarvis in Billings City Hall. "And then the second and fourth is our council meetings, our regular council meetings.
In Missoula, the work sessions take place Wednesdays in committee meetings. President Marler said the committee meetings still will take place on Wednesdays, and the councilors aren't considering adjustments to those sessions.
In Great Falls, the city commission consists of a mayor and four commissioners, also paid to work part time. The body meets the first and third Tuesdays of the month, holding a work session at 5:30 p.m. and then a regular session at 7 p.m.
Commissioners receive a stipend of roughly $333 a month, and the mayor receives some $583 a month, said Mayor Mike Winters. However, he said he and the commissioners are accessible and available to the public much more than a part-time job would dictate.
"The expectations are that you're available 24-7, and we have to conduct the city business in such a way that it certainly demands more than part-time (work)," Winters said.
He said the meetings are efficient, and officials in Great Falls are direct with both the public and city staff. In other words, they don't like to spend an hour on a topic that can take five minutes.
"We have good ... commission meetings," Winters said. "Some of them get a little out of hand, and it's basically my fault because there's two or three people that like to bait me, and I rise to the bait almost every time."
At the same time, he said, members of the public know he's not a politician. Rather, he's more interested in getting the job done than getting re-elected.
"They know that as mayor, I don't take much B.S. I certainly don't roll over for 'em," Winters said.
In Missoula, both Marler and Hertz noted the condemnation case against Mountain Water Co. as one possible reason council members aren't broaching major initiatives. This spring, the city of Missoula filed an eminent domain case against the utility and owner The Carlyle Group, and trial is set for March 2015.
"A lot of the administration's effort is focused on the condemnation of Mountain Water, and I think maybe that's what's taking up the bulk of the City Council's and administration's energy right now," Hertz said.
He said development is starting to pick up, but for now, the workload is manageable, and a weekly meeting is "a little excessive." Marler also noted another reason the council might not need to meet as much.
"It could also be that there's more agreement on things," Marler said.
One item might bring councilors to the table more frequently in the future, though, she said. In November, voters approved a $42 million parks bond, and Marler said the council may have related items to discuss as that project unfolds.
On the council's agenda, she said, certain items dictate a prescribed number of public meetings, and that won't change. Also, she said, the council can add meetings if it needs to do so.
Marler said dropping two meetings a month instead of just one might be too much of an adjustment. However, she said bringing in so many city officials and other professionals for just 40 minutes every Monday probably isn't necessary.
"It takes up a lot of people's time, and maybe it would just be more efficient for everybody to consolidate," Marler said.