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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Commandeering smaller issues to discuss sweeping, even important, policies is a recipe for clogging government business

by Greg Harton | May 7, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

My social media feed suggests videos it thinks I might light. Its mostly way, way off because I try to maintain privacy settings that limit how well its systems can read my mind.

But I have been drawn into a few videos in which an individual video records people going about their business in public places. Sooner or later, someone challenges what he's doing. The phrase "You can't record people without their permission," comes up -- untrue in a public setting -- and the confrontation grows. The videographer gets a confrontation that earns views when he posts it to social media. Bonus points if someone calls the cops, who end up having to explain the videographer has a right to record on public property, like a sidewalk.

It reminds me of the old adage: Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

Fayetteville City Council member Sarah Moore has every right, under City Council rules, to pull an issue off the consent agenda for discussion. The consent agenda is for noncontroversial approval of city business, typically items like contracts for city projects or accepting grant funds from other agencies. Routine items are thus approved with a single, efficient vote.

Moving any item off the consent agenda doesn't require a vote or a second. The general theory is if just one council member wants to discuss the item, it is therefore not "noncontroversial" and unsuitable for the consent agenda.

Moore earned her renown in local government as a leader for the nonprofit Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition, which opposes jail expansions and questions many practices in law enforcement and criminal justice. Now, she's an elected City Council member. Her AJRC colleague, Beth Coger, got herself elected to the Washington County Quorum Court, where she faces several antogonistic colleagues who didn't much care for her previous activism.

It's safe to say they both have strong feelings on criminal justice issues. Some would undoubtedly call it an "agenda."

That's what led to a lengthy discussion Tuesday evening. Moore wanted discussion on two consent items -- a federal grant to fund school resource officers and a purchase of vehicles for those officers. Support in the community ultimately proved overwhelming. The final vote in favor of the grant was 7-1, with Moore opposing.

Should it have stayed on the consent agenda?

Probably not, but it raises a serious question about how this public body does its business. Given the floor, Moore explained her desire to discuss "all of the available, possible solutions" to what she called a public health crisis that includes suicide prevention, incarceration rates, de-escalation of "stressors" on families, dealing with gun violence and other issues.

Does all that need to be resolved before the council could vote on accepting a grant?

This being Fayetteville, Moore was given a wide berth. As a new council member, maybe she deserved a little slack. But can a public body function effectively if an issue as specific as accepting $250,000 from a federal grant -- in support of a policy previously embraced by the City Council's -- is commandeered into a wide-ranging discussion about criminal justice?

Should Moore, or any other council member, be given that leeway every time, say, pay raises for the police department come up, or when there's a purchase of bullet-resistant vests? If that's the case, a Fayetteville City Council already known for exhaustingly long meetings will need cots in the council chambers.

Sarah Moore wants a broader discussion of what "justice' looks like in her community, in Arkansas and beyond. I can't fault her for that. My point is simply that the broad policy discussion she wants -- and that should happen in a dedicated meeting if other council members agree -- should not take centerstage every time the police chief needs approval to stock the supply cabinet at police headquarters.

Just because she can doesn't mean she should.

Print Headline: Governing can’t be a free-for-all


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