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Thursday, June 5, 2003 02:20 pm

Aldermania

A history lesson from the City Council chambers

You'd think a reporter would remember the night he covered a City Council meeting that lasted so long he left in the middle of it to file his story, waited until the newspaper rolled off the presses, then returned to the council chambers to deliver the next day's news to the aldermen, whose meeting still hadn't adjourned.

"Well, yeah, I vaguely remember that happening," says Jay Fitzgerald, a former scribe for the State Journal-Register.

But that marathon meeting clearly wasn't among his top ten memories of covering Springfield politics in the late 1980s--the earliest aldermanic days, when a voting rights lawsuit forced the city to adopt a more representative form of government.

"The aldermen were really brand new, just learning Robert's Rules of Order, and there was kind of a Wild West atmosphere, some pretty bruising battles," Fitzgerald says. "They were inventing a government. It was a pretty extraordinary thing to behold. And it was a blast to cover them."

Fortunately, the aldermen have learned Robert's Rules, the spirit of the Wild West lives on in Frank Kunz, and, best of all, the meetings never last past deadline. (Is there some reason the only hard-bottom chairs in the chambers are in the box marked "Reserved for the Media"?)

In fact, meetings seem to be getting shorter with each new mayor. Former mayor Karen Hasara shaved off a big chunk of time when she introduced the concept of the "consent agenda," effectively corralling routine matters into a glob that gets passed with one simple vote. Part-way through each council meeting, Hasara would read the consent agenda ordinances into the record using the same demeanor as a flight attendant demonstrating how you can use your seat cushion as a flotation device--words that are legally necessary to speak, despite the fact that no one is listening.

Our new mayor, Tim Davlin, has further refined the process by having City Clerk Cecilia Tumulty read the consent agenda into the record at 5:30 p.m.--half an hour before the real meeting begins. New ordinances getting their "first read" are presented at the same time to whoever happens to wander into the room. "People do show up," Tumulty says, "especially if it's a zoning night."

But Hasara's predecessor, Ossie Langfelder, doesn't approve of this tactic, no matter how much time it saves. "That's kind of like a hidden agenda," he says. "I think it's healthy for the community to have open meetings. I think what Hasara started with agenda consolidation was all wrong. I just never said anything because I was never asked."

Langfelder, a Democrat, endorsed his party-mate Davlin in the most recent election, and believes Davlin must have been "acting on the advice of others" when he made the decision to streamline the agenda.

"I know there are some council members who are very hardworking and read everything," Langfelder says. "But some never read anything. They just vote how they were told to vote. I'm sure [Alderman and Sangamon County Republican Party Chairman] Irv Smith supports this 100 percent, because he never wanted to read anything. I'm sure he supports that wholeheartedly."

Now there's something that rings a bell with Fitzgerald. "I do remember Ossie and Irv just going at each other," he says.

Some things never change. Party politics must be one of them.

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