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City Council: Nighttime is the right time?

Mon, Dec 13, 2010

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Councilmember Sean Paige would like to see city council meetings moved to the evening, when more citizens could conveniently attend them.

That’s an idea that gets floated every few years, and abandoned after council members actually try evening meetings.

Here’s what happened back in the 90s, when I was a proudly idealistic member of that august body, and fervently believed that nighttime was the right time.

It may well be more convenient for members of the public to attend meetings after work, but that doesn’t mean they’ll show up. It turns out that most people would rather take time off work, or re-arrange their schedules during the day, than spend long, dreary evenings at City Hall.

Evening meetings mean that senior city staff spend hours twiddling their thumbs at the meetings, waiting to answer questions or make presentations. While it may be popular to paint city employees as lazy slackers who should be made to work late into the night at the whim of their policy-making masters, it hardly makes for workplace efficiency. Sometimes department heads need to confer with lower-ranking employees to answer questions, and those folks aren’t around at night.

And unlike owls or vampires, council members don’t suddenly become energized as night falls. They get tired, inattentive, testy, and distracted as the hours go by.

At one particularly disastrous meeting, which ended after midnight, council members and the Mayor lost track of the motions on the floor, as did the City Clerk, City Manager, and the City Attorney.

It fell to a Boy Scout who was attending the meeting to set us straight. With the clear-eyed confidence of youth, he politely rose and kindly clarified the sequence of motions, amendments and what it was that we were debating.

That was our last evening meeting.

Here’s Paige’s memo to his colleagues, which he plans to present this afternoon.

“Colleagues:

We constantly hear talk about the need to make it easier and more appealing for a more diverse group of people to serve on city council, despite the excellent pay and incredible perks, yet one of the most obvious obstacles to service is the fact that we hold our council and utility board meetings during the day, when most people are working. Not only do afternoon meetings make it hard for average people to attend and participate; I believe they also serve as a deterrent to potential candidates, based on a few conversations I’ve had with people who are interested in running but don’t have a flexible-enough schedule. We all are fortunate enough to have that flexibility, but not everyone is, and we could quickly and easily remove this obstacle to participation by simply moving our meetings to evening hours beginning next year (or after the next election, if that has more appeal).

The time to consider that change is now, since it may be a factor in the minds of people weighing the possibility of running for council. More could be encouraged to take the plunge if they know now that they will be able to hold a day job while serving. Passing-off this decision to the next council will potentially close the door on a number of people who could use some clarity on this now.

A change of schedule might be inconvenient for some of us, and perhaps for city staff, and it might lead to some late night future meetings. But it would make participating and serving much more convenient for everyone else, which is why it seems like a no-brainer to me. I’ll float this proposal at Monday’s informal and wanted to give you a heads-up. I hope you’ll give this idea your serious consideration.”

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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Like it'll matter ..... Says:

    ……. these are not PTA meetings we’re talkin’ about, this is serious business going on, and serious business gets done during the day.

  2. Jacque Stanley Says:

    I am convinced after reading John’s priceless story of the Boy Scout that Council meetings should NOT be held in the evenings. Thanks for my smile of the day.

  3. Kenyon Jordan Says:

    John — I cracked up at your reference to the Boy Scout telling everyone what they were talking about at your ’90s council meeting. Enjoyable history lesson.

  4. Bill Guman Says:

    yeah, I recall all the experiments, too, to try and bring more people out (i.e. “Council Comes to You,” “City Hall at the Mall,” etc.) and night meetings. All were sparsely attended. The expense and hassle of taking the show on the road was simply not worth the effort. Night time council meetings did not equal increased attendance. And production drops when you’re sitting there at 1am.

    I’ve found smaller towns typically conduct their council business in the evenings. But now that we’re “big time,” with a strong mayor & all we need to operate like a big city, right?

  5. Janis Heuberger Says:

    Technology being what it is, allows all of us to view the council meetings on television or on-line to keep up to date and involved. Our local media also has been doing a top-notch job of staying on top of important city wide issues.

  6. Scott Hente Says:

    Plus, as I said during Council today, if we do this, we’re sending the wrong message to future Councilmembers: “Oh, just show up for a few evenings a week, and you too can be a Councilmember.”

    The truth of the matter is that being a Councilmember is almost a full time job. There are many other meetings (PPACG, RTA, Urban Renewal, etc.) that demand Councilmember’s attention and they take place during the day. Not to mention meetings with constituents, service clubs, advocay groups, etc.

    As Bill Guman and John Hazlehurst can attest to, if you want to be on Council there are a lot of sacrifices you make. And tops on that list is time.