With a vote pending to set in motion a change of its meeting times from evening to afternoon, the Bishop City Council on Monday instead abandoned the proposal at the behest of concerned constituents.
A second reading of an ordinance and subsequent adoption of that ordinance would have made the council’s proposal official, and effective in 30 days. For the foreseeable future, the City Council will continue to meet at 7 p.m., allowing for the largest segment of the local population to continue to be able to attend council meetings outside of working hours.
The council previously approved the first reading at its Jan. 27 meeting by a split vote of 4-1, with Councilwoman Laura Smith opposing what she described as a cost-cutting measure that came with too many negative impacts on the public – including restricting access to meetings to those who work full-time or attend school during the day – to justify any potential savings.
As originally proposed, the time change from 7 p.m. to 1 p.m. was said to be able to save the city $10,000 to $12,000 in overtime costs, and would align the council meetings with a normal workday to better accommodate city staff – salaried and hourly employees alike.
The time change has been one of several cost-cutting measures considered by city officials in recent months as they embark on a “no stone unturned” effort to reduce expenses in the face of dwindling revenue.
In the two weeks that followed the council’s Jan. 27 approval of the ordinance’s first reading, at least two council members, Mayor Jim Ellis and Councilman David Stottlemyre, came around to Smith’s way of thinking on the matter.
Helping to change Ellis’ mind, at least, were more constituents reaching out to him with concerns about the ramifications of elected officials hold ing public meetings during the day when most of their constituents are unable to attend.
Three such constituents addressed the council Monday prior to its second vote.
Smiley Connolly, a councilman himself during the 1990s and early 2000s, said the city tried to make the daytime move before – with poor results. “I think this is a bad idea,” he said. “The people who voted you in like to come at night.” He also addressed the impacts to working council members. A plumber by trade, Connolly said he would not have been able to do both his regular job and the job the people elected to him to do. If he was under a house trying to fix a leaky pipe, for example, and the clock struck 1, “what am I supposed to say to the home owner? ‘Put your finger in here until I come back, I have to go to a City Council meeting’?”
He went on to cite various types of workers in different industries whose employers would not give them time off during the day to attend a council meeting.
As far as the potential savings, “If I was on the council, I’d find a way to save that $10,000” elsewhere, he said.
Ellis asked Connolly what resident sentiment was at the time the council tried the daytime move in the ’90s. “If I talked to 10 people, nine asked why they were doing this. If any of you talked to your constituents, they’d tell you the same thing.”
Bishop resident Karen Kong agreed with much of what Connolly said, adding that proposing a move to working hours is “drawing a socioeconomic line.” In other words, residents with executive-level, professional or otherwise well-paying jobs are not only more likely to get permission to take time off work during the day, but can also afford to do so.
In terms of the socioeconomic breakdown of Bishop, the east side is considerably less wealthy than the west.
From the perspective of wanting to be as inclusive as possible, cutting off meeting access to a large portion of the population “seems like a foolish choice to me,” Kong said, especially when that demographic is the most likely to be utilizing city services – such as Park and Recreation events and sports leagues, the park pool and more.
Kong suggested that the council would also be shifting the balance of its constituency – in terms of who would be able to participate in municipal government – to the wealthier residents who live outside of city limits in West Bishop.
She concluded by pointing out that even taking an hour lunch break from her job would not have given her enough time to speak at that particular meeting, since the agenda item didn’t come up for discussion until about an hour and 20 minutes into the meeting.
Joe Pecsi, who retired as city police chief in 2007, said he’s tried to stay out of politics since his retirement, but when he read about the council’s proposal, he was “surprised.”
“I think you’re doing a disservice to the city by having your council meetings during the day,” he said, echoing Connolly and Kong’s comments about working residents who would be unable to attend.
He also questioned the actual overtime costs to the city, which City Administrator Keith Caldwell has said are accrued primarily by two non-management level employees who are required to attend every meeting. According to Pecsi, when he worked for the city, those overtime costs were kept to a minimum by allowing those employees to take comp time.
Pecsi also agreed with Connolly that the council members were elected by people who expected them to be available at night. “I haven’t heard anyone who’s in favor of this.”
Councilwoman Smith renewed her stance from the Jan. 27 meeting, reminding her colleagues that over the past eight years, the council has worked hard to increase public participation at its meetings. There are many times when no one from the public shows up, but it’s not the norm like it used to be, she explained. Switching to daytime, as some residents have told her, “would be like taking five giant steps backward,” Smith said.
Ellis called the issue at hand a “double-edged sword” because it would save the city thousands of dollars, but inconvenience a lot of people in the process. He said the more he talked to the public, the more he was convinced it was a bad move – particularly after someone pointed out to him that “guys like me” would have a difficult time running for council.
Ellis noted that had the council been meeting during the day four years ago, he probably would not have run for office. And while he acknowledged that sometimes the council chambers are empty of everyone but city staff at night, “it’s quite an honor when the public does show up.”
He concluded, “To save some money, we’re (proposing) damaging the system.”
Councilwoman Pat Gardner didn’t have the same change of heart. She reiterated previous comments that residents she did speak with thought moving to daytime was a logical step. As for daytime meetings impacting future elections, “thus far we haven’t had uncontested elections. Five people ran for City Council last time. If people want to run for office, they find a way to run for office.”
Gardner also reminded her colleagues that the savings were nothing to sneeze at. “We started down this path for a reason.” She also said no constituents reached out to her on the matter; to get feedback, she had to go out “and beat the bushes.”
Councilman Stottlemyre reiterated his previous comments that the change comes with many unknowns in terms of exactly how attendance at council meetings would be affected. However, it was his belief that two of the three councilmen working full-time (Stottlemyre is self-employed) would be inconvenienced by the change, and since they ran for office under the impression they’d be able to serve at night, Stottlemyre suggested waiting until after the upcoming November election to discuss changing the meeting times.
Councilman Keith Glidewell, one of the three who works full-time during the day, said he’d actually prefer that the change be made before the election, so new candidates “know what they’re getting into.”
He also said he didn’t personally believe he was elected because the council holds meetings at night, but rather because those who voted for him believed in his ability as an elected leader. Glidewell nevertheless said there was merit to the concerns about restricted access to daytime City Council meetings, and he was particularly concerned about impediments to youth involvement in government.
In the end, the vote to not approve a second reading of the ordinance was approved unanimously.
Smith thanked the residents who took the time to attend Monday’s meeting. “It makes a difference,” she said.