Bishop’s City Council is one step closer to changing its meeting times from evening to afternoon.
By a split vote of 4-1, the council approved the first reading of an ordinance Monday night that could eventually change the way the elected panel has historically done business.
The move is being proposed as a cost-saver, one of many being considered over the past several months as department heads and the council brainstorm ways to reduce expenses in the face of less revenue.
According to City Administrator Keith Caldwell and Councilman David Stottlemyre, who first introduced the idea at a Dec. 11 budget workshop, moving council meetings to normal business hours will save the city an estimated $10,000 to $12,000 in overtime costs.
For Councilwoman Laura Smith, it’s not as simple as saving money – and, she said, might not be worth the inconvenience and hardship caused to constituents and potential political candidates.
Currently, the council meets the second and fourth Mondays of the month at 7 p.m., with study sessions at 4 p.m. City Hall’s business hours are 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
Overtime is accrued by non-exempt employees – everyone besides department heads, elected officials and mid-level managers – who might be required to attend the 7 p.m. City Council meeting. As it is, Caldwell said, two non-exempt employees are present at each meeting: Assistant City Clerk Robin Picken, who serves as recording secretary to the council; and Public Services Officer Gary Schley, whom the council keeps on hand in case questions arise that are related to building permits or similar issues.
Occasionally, staff members from other departments are in attendance to provide information and answer questions related to specific agenda items, or to present program updates to the council – as two Parks and Rec employees did Monday evening. Those two employees were being paid overtime to give that program update.
According to Stottlemyre, pushing the study sessions back to 10 a.m. and the council meetings to 1 p.m. helps eliminate these costs – assuming the council can conclude its meetings prior to 4:30 p.m. The vast majority of City Council meetings do not go past the two-hour mark.
Most of the Council
On Monday, Stottlemyre acknowledged there are “a lot of unknowns” associated with the time change, referring to concerns that residents who work during the day won’t be able to attend City Council meetings. But, he said, there are two certainties: the council can always change the meetings back to the evening if the afternoon time proves problematic and, most importantly, it will save money.
Two of the current council members, Jim Ellis and Keith Glidewell, work full-time and would be required to take time off work to attend both the study sessions and the council meetings twice a month.
They both voted in support of the change.
“As someone who works full-time, it is a sacrifice, but I’m willing to do what’s best for the city,” Ellis said, moments after sharing with the council comments he’d heard from constituents, none of them in favor of the time change.
One constituent told Ellis, “You guys work for the public and you’re inconveniencing them” in order to do your job. According to Ellis, he wasn’t expecting to hear that.
Councilwoman Patricia Gardner said she’s heard from constituents as well, but they felt meetings during business hours was a logical move since government should be operated like a business anyway.
Stottlemyre said he heard comments from both sides, “mostly that it’ll be fine.”
Glidewell reminded the audience and those watching at home that in order to “off-set” some of the impacts created by the time change, the city is looking into software that would allow anyone, anywhere to watch the meetings live from their computers or smartphones. “So you can watch the council meetings on your phone while you’re working, for example,” he said.
Costs to Accommodate Constituents
The meetings would also be digitally archived so they could be watched at any time in the future, and viewers could go directly to certain agenda items and just watch those proceedings.
The software, along with cameras, a monthly subscription to the online service and possibly a whole audio upgrade in council chambers to make the live online feeds feasible, are expenses and purchases that the council would have to consider independently of the time change decision.
Granicus, a popular online service used by government agencies, including the Town of Mammoth Lakes, runs about $10,000 a year.
On the low end of the spectrum are programs available for $3,000 a year, according to Picken, who is working on cost estimates to present to the council during the Feb. 18 budget workshop.
The potential expense of the live feed software taking a big dent out of the projected savings in overtime costs aside, not everyone was sold on the idea Monday.
Impacts on Democratic Process?
Councilwoman Smith reminded her colleagues that they have been working hard to foster greater public involvement and participating in municipal government – and have seen success over the past five years. She indicated that preventing a large portion of the population access to council meetings is a step backward.
Smith also pointed out that daytime meetings could prevent residents from running for City Council if they also have a job. The two seats held by Ellis and Glidewell are up for election in November. The filing period for nomination papers and candidate statements is July 14 through Aug. 8, and the council could already have daytime meetings by then – scaring off potential candidates.
Stottlemyre said that the converse could be true: residents who work nights would now be able to attend meetings, and they would finally be able to run for City Council.
He again noted that the meetings could be changed back to evenings.
There is a slim window in which the meetings can be changed back to evenings before the filing period for the November election closes.
If the council approves the second reading of the ordinance at its next meeting, on Feb. 10, the ordinance takes effect 30 days after that. The first council meeting to be held during the day would be the March 24 meeting.
According to Caldwell, the council will likely give the afternoon time a 60-day trial run. At the end of that trial period, in late May, if the council decides to switch back to evenings, the city has to draft another ordinance, which requires two readings and another 30-day enactment period – essentially a 60-day approval process. Best-case scenario, Caldwell said, the meetings would officially be changed back towards the end of July.