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Council takes steps to cut its chatter

To say St. Petersburg City Council members can talk is like saying Michael Jordan can play basketball.

For sheer verbiage, the part-time council members easily beat most other government bodies throughout the region. They spend so much time talking about particular votes, they frequently forget the motion by the time they get around to voting on it. They spend hours in meetings talking about how to hold more efficient meetings.

So consider the historic nature of this day. Thursday, Nov. 6, 1997, may become known as the day the St. Petersburg City Council muzzled itself.

At the urging of council member Frank Peterman, the council has adopted a new policy limiting each council member to speaking no more than three minutes at a time. All told, members will have three minutes to address an issue, another three minutes to follow up and then another minute for summation.

"It's gotten out of hand," said Peterman, a recently elected council member who finds it frustrating that weekly meetings _ even with routine agendas _ can eat up eight hours or more. "I don't believe we should waste taxpayers' money by having top staff stand around all day listening to us pontificate."

Today marks the first meeting to test out the new policy, and all sorts of questions remain unanswered: How much time will be spent debating whether someone has reached their time limit? What happens when someone spends an hour peppering city staffers with questions? Should council members be gonged when they hit three minutes, as citizens are?

Chairman Ernest Fillyau promises to wield a heavy gavel, but council history suggests he is a strong candidate for busting the time limit.

To get a better handle on the blab factor, the Times took a stopwatch into the council's last regular meeting two weeks ago and for 3{ hours timed the council members' talk.

Bea Griswold, who often complains about council members talking too much, topped the talker list at 17 minutes, five seconds. In descending order, the others were: Kathleen Ford, 14 minutes, six seconds; Jay Lasita, nine minutes, 19 seconds; Connie Kone (who was absent for 45 minutes), eight minutes, five seconds; Larry Williams (absent 30 minutes), three minutes, 48 seconds; Frank Peterman, two minutes, 30 seconds; and Bob Kersteen, two minutes, seven seconds.

The results of that entirely unscientific test suggest Peterman's mission to promote brevity may have limited success. Ford, for instance, dominates most meetings and pushes the council to spend an hour or more on issues most people would consider minor.

But she does it like a prosecutor, firing off pointed questions instead of making speeches. At a workshop Tuesday, she bristled at Peterman's suggestion that questions also should be curbed.

"You know what Frank? That's what my constituents like about what I'm doing _ asking questions," she said.

Questions are appropriate, Peterman agrees, but plenty of constituents also are complaining about the style of this new council.

"People in the public are saying that we ramble on about nothing at times, and that we're speaking mostly because we're on TV," he said.

St. Petersburg may not even be the most long-winded board in the region. Hillsborough County Commissioners often spend 16 hours or more a week in meetings, and in 1994 Clearwater City Commissioners once met from 6 p.m. until 3:06 a.m.

St. Petersburg's televised weekly council meetings typically start at 8:30 a.m. and conclude sometime around 3 p.m., although members also spend hours every week in off-camera workshops and subcommittees preparing for upcoming meetings.

"Then we get in front of the TV and start quizzing staff about this or that, as if we haven't already heard the information," Fillyau said.

County Commission Chairman Bob Stewart, a former St. Petersburg City Council member, doubts time limits will have much impact if the chairman fails to run the meeting firmly, and if council members aren't intent on controlling themselves.

"The county commissioners at least don't feel they have to postulate on every single item and each little issue whether there's a vote coming up or not," said Stewart, whose meetings run a few hours.