With City Council committees already running late, Myron Lowery issued a strict edict at last week's planning and zoning meeting. "My commitment to everyone is that we will end, on time, at 3 o'clock," he said. "Any item we don't finish won't be finished."
It was an all-too-common reminder for the council that it is running out of time.
Come January, nine members of the 13-member City Council will be gone. Longtime members Jack Sammons and Tom Marshall didn't run for reelection. Neither did E.C. Jones, Brent Taylor, Edmund Ford, or Dedrick Brittenum. Carol Chumney lost her bid for mayor. And mid-term replacements Madeleine Cooper Taylor and Henry Hooper ran for, but didn't win, their current seats.
Which means if the council wants to do anything, it needs to do it now.
In October, Marshall, the current chair, proposed 11 items the council should undertake before the year ended, including a tourist development zone around Graceland, an anti-blight initiative, a redevelopment plan for the Fairgrounds, and a revision to the city's billboard and sign ordinance.
But the billboard and sign ordinance was one of the things that got caught in the crunch last week.
Duncan Associates consultant Eric Kelly was ready to present the proposed changes to the current sign ordinance when Brittenum made a motion to delay the item until it had been heard by the Land Use Control Board. Brittenum read a section from the current zoning regulations that stipulated any changes have to be heard at Land Use before coming to the council.
"My contention is that this matter cannot be heard until the Land Use Control Board hears it. Who knows what Land Use is going to say?" Brittenum said. "If we do it this other truncated way ... I'm telling you, we're subjecting ourselves to legal action."
But waiting didn't sit well with other council members.
"It doesn't say anywhere it cannot be submitted to the council," Marshall said. "We're doing it in tandem with the Land Use Control Board."
The changes are scheduled to come before the Land Use Control Board at its December meeting. The ordinance and Land Use's recommendation will then be heard by the council December 18th, the last meeting of the year, and for most council members, probably their last meeting.
And since each ordinance has to go through three readings (and be approved in the meeting minutes), that puts the sign ordinance outside the realm of the current council.
"I put in hours of time with [the Office of Planning and Development] and the consultant. The consultant is here today to talk about this thing and to afford this council honest discourse on the subject," Marshall said. "To simply throw that away because of some sort of bureaucratic glitch ... We're the anti-bureaucracy up here. We're the guys who are supposed to break the bureaucratic red tape and deal with things, not find reasons not to deal with them."
But the committee decided against hearing the consultant's presentation. It will wait for the recommendation from Land Use.
"If there was some urge to get the sign ordinance finished, why didn't we get it started early enough so that it could go in the proper order?" Brittenum asked.
It's a fair question. Marshall has been a member of the council since 1986, or for the mathematically challenged, more than 20 years. His term is old enough to drink.
Sammons has spent a combined, though not consecutive, 16 years on the council. Jones and Taylor have both been council members for more than a decade.
But government is a slow business. Not only does each ordinance take three meetings before it is enacted, there are also countless hours of research and discussion. The ordinances get sent back to committees for more discussion; they get deferred when committees are too busy talking about something else. And that's how it should be.
But a ticking clock can be a powerful motivator: Think about alarm clocks, bombs, Captain Hook.
With time running out, there seems to be a rededication on the part of the council to getting things done. That's not to say that what they've accomplished before doesn't count or took too long. I just haven't seen this much urgency in a while. Frankly, it's a good argument for term limits.
But, then again, what do writers know about deadlines?