A plan by the Auburn City Council to make 5 p.m. the new starting time for its weekly public sessions is a bad idea, and we urge councilors to reject it.
We've argued in the past that the yearly short-term change from 6 p.m. to 5 p.m. for "summer hours" ignores the fact that the working world doesn't come to a halt during the summer months, and making that change permanent would create an even bigger roadblock for public participation.
Work schedules vary by industry, of course, but the reality is that most people are tied up until at least 5 p.m. on weekdays — and Auburn residents don't all work within a quick drive to city hall. So people commuting from Syracuse, for example, wouldn't be able to get to a one-hour council meeting until it's nearly over.
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The rationale given by some is that meeting times don't seem to have any correlation to attendance, with councilors and city staffers agreeing that they see the same few faces nearly every week. But changing the rules and procedures for city government should not be done based on anecdotal evidence. Councilor Debra McCormick went a step further and said that she finds it "discouraging" that the public doesn't participate more. But making it more difficult for people to attend meetings is the opposite of an effort to get even more people involved.
The only caveat in the planned change would be the addition of a public comment session at the end of every meeting, giving people who arrive late a chance to be heard. But even that move appears to be an acknowledgment that 5 p.m. is far too early to kick off a meeting.
We understand that starting council meetings immediately after the workday would be a great convenience for city staff, but it also would be a great inconvenience for the public. If a resident has an issue with a city department and they don't feel like they are being listened to by the city manager or city staff, they need to be given an opportunity to bring that issue to the council in a public setting. We can even surmise that people considering running for council seats might decide that they wouldn't be able to participate because their day jobs keep them fully occupied until 5 p.m.
The city council is an elected body put in place by the voters, and the needs of the public should lead the discussion rather than the wants of the people holding the meeting. And it's not just the city council that needs to avoid holding meetings at inopportune times. We encourage all public legislative bodies, including town and village boards, that aren't already meeting at 6 or 7 p.m. to reconsider making their public work more accessible to the public.
The Citizen editorial board includes publisher Michelle Bowers, executive editor Jeremy Boyer and managing editor Mike Dowd.