Last Tuesday night’s marathon City Council meeting got a lot of people thinking.
The subject under consideration was whether or not to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, within the Denton city limits. This is a hot topic with passions high on both sides of the conversation. More than 500 people attended the council meeting, with some 110 citizens signing up to voice their opinions. The meeting opened at 6:30 p.m. and ended more than eight hours later. Council members and staff finally left City Hall around 3:15 a.m. Wednesday.
Today’s column is not about fracking. It’s about that incredibly long day and the leaders who listened attentively for many hours to their constituents.
One thing Denton residents seem to agree on is how sorry we felt for our council members throughout that lengthy ordeal. With the council workshop having started at 1 p.m. Tuesday, their day was more than 14 hours long in their council roles with no substantial breaks.
According to the National League of Cities, “city councils are the legislators of a municipality who are democratically elected to decide which services will be provided and how to pay for them, among many other tasks.” I decided to research the number of hours the average city council member spends on council business. The NLC says in a city Denton’s size, the average is 25 hours per week. The Texas Municipal League reports the average to be 15 to 25 hours, though some cities recorded more, with a few nudging 40 hours per week.
Our Denton City Council members are not paid for their service on council. They are volunteers. The Online Etymology Dictionary says the word volunteer was first used circa 1600 as “one who offers himself for military service.” The word is derived from the Latin voluntarius, meaning “voluntary, of one’s free will.” It was first used in 1638 relevant to non-military service.
In today’s vernacular, a volunteer is “a person who performs a service willingly and without pay” (Dictionary.com). Volunteerism, then, is “the policy or practice of volunteering one’s time or talents for charitable, educational or other worthwhile activities, especially in one’s community” (World English Dictionary).
Many of us volunteer our time for purposes in which we believe or hold passion. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics says Americans gave an average 50 hours per person to volunteer work in 2013. Where these hours are invested is limitless. Civic organizations, health concerns, churches, charities, events, educational programs and schools, political causes, and cultural enhancements are just a few and barely scratch the surface of possibilities we could list. Most of us are the type of people who give time and resources where we can. We have jobs and families and responsibilities that demand our first fruits, so 50 hours a year feels pretty good. There are exceptions to every rule. I realize some who are retired or have the means may be able to give more than average time. But we’re talking here about the holistic norm.
Denton’s City Council members spent 14 of their average 25-hour week on one council day. Those 14 hours represent just under a third of the hours the rest of us, on average, will donate all year!
Since the fracking meeting was an anomaly in its duration, just think about 25 hours per week. These people have regular jobs like we do. They work as lawyers, restaurateurs, business people and educators and, if we include other local elected officials, in many other professions outside of their civic tasks. In Denton we are fortunate in that we know our leaders. It is not at all unusual to see them enjoying a break in a coffee shop, on their own time, deep in an unplanned, unscheduled discussion with a citizen. We must consider these additional minutes and hours as well.
I watched the meeting last week unfold on Facebook. Thousands not in attendance at City Hall were in front of their TVs and computers. I even heard about watch parties, like the Super Bowl, only for City Council. Surely that was a first.
Pam Livingston, was watching at home around 2 a.m. when she posted to Facebook, “Can’t believe I’m still watching the council proceedings on the proposed fracking ban. Guess I should have gone tonight. Folks, our council reps work hard for us and should be appreciated.”
I just want to say, “Ditto, Pam.” No matter your politics, the people on that dais need to hear that we are much obliged.
KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton’s original, independent spirit through the city’s sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at email@example.com.