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Marathon meetings becoming the norm

DEL MAR — With a population of about 4,300 people, Del Mar is the smallest city in San Diego County. Council members meet bimonthly, and one is appointed, rather than elected, to serve as mayor for a year.

Regular meetings, which begin at 6 p.m., have historically lasted an average of three or four hours. They occasionally run past 10 p.m., but rarely after 11 p.m.

When Carl Hilliard was in control of the gavel in 2012, one meeting ended at 11:10 p.m. Four concluded around 10:30 p.m. and the rest adjourned between 8 and 9:30 p.m.

During Terry Sinnott’s tenure in 2013 one meeting ended at 10:45 p.m. The others were generally done between 7:30 and 9 p.m. When Lee Haydu was mayor most meetings adjourned between 8:30 and 9:30 p.m., with two running past 10.

But since the beginning of 2015, the average council meeting has been nearly six hours long, with about half ending after 11 p.m. and the most recent adjourning past midnight even after starting at 4:30 p.m.

To keep up with their workload, staff members generally don’t arrive later on meeting days. City Manager Scott Huth said they are usually in by 7:30 or 8 a.m. daily.

Council members receive a monthly stipend of $300, so some have full-time jobs.

Council and staff usually convene before each meeting for about an hour in closed session to address personnel and legal issues not open for public discussion.

The result is often a 14-plus-hour day for the people making decisions on how the city is run. It also means consultants and residents must be on hand late into the night to provide input.

And listening to what the public has to say is something the city prides itself on, considering it part of the “Del Mar way.”

Some have suggested recent meetings have been lengthy because Al Corti, the current mayor, is not organized.

“To be a good leader you’ve got to be very well-prepared,” one former mayor said. “You’ve got to know the agenda and go through each item before the meetings. There are plenty of opportunities before the meetings to discuss things you don’t quite understand with the city manager or staff.”

Others, such as Councilman Don Mosier, say the marathon meetings are “a consequence of the many projects the city is undertaking.”

Del Mar is preparing to demolish the City Hall buildings next January and replace them with a civic center complex that includes a town hall and plazas. Master planning is under way to develop the Shores property, which the city bought from the Del Mar Union School District in 2008.

Other projects include building a contiguous network of sidewalks and improving the streetscape along Camino del Mar. There are controversial developments such as a multifamily housing complex and proposed roundabout at the corner of Jimmy Durante Boulevard and San Dieguito Drive.

Huth said the city is also dealing with “unanticipated items that we didn’t see coming that generally take a lot of time,” such as regulating short-term rentals and addressing potential problems from Kaaboo, an upcoming three-day music event at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.

“When you’re trying to be responsive to the community it’s not an easy thing to put things off and that adds to the plate,” Huth said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s a mayor’s management issue.”

“There’s a lot on the plate,” Sinnott said. “Sometimes issues come to council that are not completely polished and there’s not a cut-and-dry yes-or-no answer.”

“We’ve had a lot of meatier issues and more of them in the last few months,” Corti said, adding that he doesn’t think the city has too much on its plate.

“There are a lot of things that we need to tackle and we’re making progress,” he said. “I don’t think we’re overtaxing anyone. It makes people work harder and I haven’t heard any complaints from staff.

“If someone thinks the meetings are too long they should speak up,” he added. “It doesn’t bother me. We have work to do so let’s get it done. … There is a strong influence by the public that we should be doing something sooner rather than later.

“If it’s an important issue we’ll address it,” he said. “That’s our job. Bring it on. If it takes a 10-hour meeting or three extra meetings, so be it.”

One solution would be to shorten the number of items on the agenda, which Huth said is ultimately set by the mayor based on input from his colleagues and staff.

Corti somewhat disagrees. “I don’t direct the agenda,” he said. “The public does.”

Some items must be addressed by a specific deadline, such as renewing the Tourism Business Improvement District so it doesn’t expire, so putting off some discussions is not an option.

Huth also said an item is automatically included when two or more council members request that it be placed on the agenda. He said that happens at least once a month and oftentimes applies to more than one item per meeting.

Mosier, Sinnott and Corti suggested holding more frequent meetings or starting them earlier, “but not with the intent to still end late,” Corti said.

But Huth said that could create a no-win situation. Residents who work complain if the meetings start too early because they can’t attend. Huth noted that residents can always provide input via email.

Others are wary if the city strays from its regular schedule.

“It becomes a bit of a conspiracy theory,” Huth said.

Huth said the increased workload and long meetings can tax the staff’s ability to accomplish a lot.

“But at the same time we are getting a lot done,” he added. “Some people are happy to see movement on these projects and they don’t want them to wait.

“Some people say the city does have too much on its plate, but some are the same people who are adding to it,” he said.

Previous mayors said even though their meetings ended earlier it does not mean they were ineffective. They all said many of the projects now coming to fruition were planned during their various tenures as mayor.

Most council members don’t view the long meetings as bad government, but they don’t see it as an ideal situation either.

“It’s a problem we all recognize,” Sinnott said. “Hopefully we can step back and do better in the future.”

When meetings stretch into the late hours council members can adjourn and table issues until a future meeting but they rarely choose that option.

Huth said several projects have reached milestones “that took a long time to get there,” so they will soon no longer require lengthy discussions.

Del Mar will also soon have a new mayor. In December Corti hands the gavel over to Councilwoman Sherryl Parks. So all eyes will be on her — and the clock — when it comes to adjournment times.