DAY THREE: Finding focus; starting an evolution?

DAY THREE: Finding focus; starting an evolution?
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By David Rogers. January 22, 2019. ASHEVILLE, NC — Impressively, Tuesday morning’s session of the 2019 Town Council Retreat actually began to more closely resemble a retreat.  With Interim Town Manager serving as a facilitator for the discussion, the Commissioners began to think more strategically.

Freeman initially had each Council member rank general categories as to what, individually, were their most important priority, i.e. Infrastructure, Quality of Life, Public Safety and Health, Organizational Efficiency or Public Service Improvements, Financial or Cost Concerns and Impact. They each assigned a priority number, 1-5, with 5 being the highest.

Then Freeman listed all of the previous two days’ retreat topics and asked the Commissioners to “make your own list” by adding, subtracting or modifying topics.  After changing the language of a few and drawing lines through others (such as “Dog Park” and “Gateway”), he originally asked them to rank the list of 23 projects or discussion areas in reverse order, with the most important assigned a “23” value and the least important to each individual a “1”. Given feedback, the scoring system was modified so that each topic would be assigned a number 1-5, with “5” being the most important or of highest priority.  Finance Director Nicole Norman then tallied each of the individual polling sheets to calculate a composite number for the group, for each of the topics.  She then sorted them so that the highest ranked topic appeared at the top.

Freeman suggested, “You can’t do all of these all at once, so the idea here is to focus on the top five or six topics and give them the highest priority in the weeks or months ahead.  By doing this, you will leave here with a focus. Town staff can come back to you with an action plan for each project and you can approve, disapprove or tweak it.”

Although a couple of Council members immediately tried to change the process, to their credit each individual member saw value in the exercise.  That sentiment was well articulated in the closing minutes of the retreat when each Retreat participant was able to provide observations and feedback on the weekend’s agenda and activities.  Interestingly, some of the suggestions included improving the event content by [A] including department heads (Jim Steele) and [B] focusing the retreat around a particular theme such as “managing short term rentals” or “public art policy”, etc. (Charlie Sellers), and inviting presenters from other, similar sized towns re: that theme (Virginia Powell).

Editor’s Note: By the end, it seemed like the Commissioners and Mayor were receptive to the retreat event’s evolution away from being just another, perhaps more conversational regular meeting of Town Council to an actual retreat deserving of an out-of-town venue because of the strategic discussions rather than a focus on operational decision-making.  Even if advertised as “open” and “public”, an event that is basically a more casual and conversational regular meeting becomes, in reality, a de facto closed session because very few concerned citizens can take three days off from work or family, much less bear the cost of lodging and travel — all expenses borne by the Town in benefit of the Mayor, Commissioners and attending Town staff members.

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