Reading Borough Council — the foray
This past week I attended my first meeting of Reading Borough Council. I also took part in the first live airing of Reading between the Lines, a current affairs show on Reading4U. I enjoyed both, largely because I used to cover city government in Kansas and produced a similar radio show in college.
There are lots of issues heating up Reading, including the 2012 budget proposal. I’m still not quite sure how it works in the UK, in terms of local government being as party-driven as it is on the national stage. Back home, there are a handful of commissioners who run on their own ballots and generally do not clump together by party (although certainly by ideology). The budget undergoes many readings over a series of meetings. Over here, the ruling party seems to have the most informed access to the budget while it is being prepared. I would attempt to go into more detail, but chances are I’m already quite confused by what I observed on Tuesday!
Here are a few differences between Reading Borough Council and Manhattan (Kansas) City Commission meetings:
- In Manhattan, there is no ceremonial entrance of the mayor. He does not get to wear a gold-coloured chain, nor does he enter with a mace.
- In Reading, the mayor gets all this and a meager title: The Right Worshipful the Mayor of Reading Councillor (Gul Khan, at present)
- In Manhattan, a public comment period allows any member of the public to voice any thought for a few minutes. The relevant commissioner or officer then responds. Follow-up happens later, if the required information is unavailable. The public can stay and participate at any other points of public comment.
- In Reading, members of the public must submit questions before a meeting. The council then prepares a statement which is read aloud. If you do not submit your question by the deadline (not quite sure when that is), you can watch from the public gallery above but cannot engage. After the question period, the participating public is then told to sit up in the public gallery above.
- In Manhattan, these meetings are once a week.
- In Reading, these meetings are once a month. In both cases it seems they have chosen Tuesdays to nurture their love of banter.
Party poking goes back and forth in Reading with great enthusiasm. It’s like watching Westminster question time, but without a decent microphone system in place. Some councillors are better at jabbing on the spot; others have written their jabs well in advance.
If you ask this American, much of the bantering is largely a time waste, as far as the public is concerned. Political jabbing on either side of the aisle, or the Atlantic, serves little more than to provide members with a bit of fun on a Tuesday night, at a cost of discouraging the public from attending such lengthy meetings.
What’s more, the issues of most substance are often buried within an agenda that reaches past a dozen items. Few members of the public can afford to wait nearly three hours before the budget is discussed. Possibly the most pressing local finance issue, the budget should be priority enough to be discussed before issues such as recycling in Reading or the anticipated arrival of digital TV in Reading. After all, the entire operation of these services and more depends on having a financially solvent community.
For one night, and one night only, I enjoyed my foray into comparative governance. But I enjoyed even more the liberty to leave after three hours, despite the jabs — uh, policy debates — flickering well into the night.
(By the way, if you’d like to see some proper news coverage from the meeting, click here. A full reading of the 2012 budget will take place at next month’s meeting, I presume.)