By Scott Tibbs, October 17, 2008
The best thing about local government is that it is close to the people. Our votes matter much more in races for city and county government than they do in races for state and federal government, especially when you get into district races for city and county council. The other great thing about local government is that it is easier for ordinary citizens to participate in discussions public policy and attend meetings where legislation and budgets are being considered. It is certainly easier to make it to the County Courthouse or City Hall to attend a meeting and speak during public comment than it is to travel to Indianapolis or Washington, D.C. to address legislation.
With city government, this works very well. City Council meetings start at 7:30 p.m. If someone who works a traditional 8 to 5 schedule wants to attend every City Council meeting, he or she is able to do so. If that same person wishes to serve on the City Council, city meeting times provide that option, provided he or she can win an election. City budget hearings are also in the evening, providing another opportunity for direct public input and participation in the forming of public policy.
In county government, however, the ability for the public to participate in democracy is much more limited. Monthly County Council meetings start at 4:30, making it difficult for an average working person to attend the meetings. But it is the council's schedule for budget hearings that act as a barrier for average people to serve on the County Council. Budget hearings are an all-day affair lasting about a week. Someone who works an 8 to 5 schedule would have to give up a week's vacation to sit through these hearings each summer if he or she wishes to serve on the County Council. Contrast this to city government's more accommodating schedule.
The County Commissioners schedule is even worse. The Commissioners meet at 9:00 a.m. every other Friday. How many average working people can serve as a County Commissioner with this schedule? Can most people not come in to work until 11:00 or 12:00 every other Friday? How many employees have a flexible enough schedule to allow this kind of disruption? Attending a specific County Commissioners meeting requires time off from work, but actually serving on the Board of Commissioners is nearly impossible for someone who works from 8 to 5.
Ideally, this should be a issue in this year's elections for Council and Commissioner. I encourage all 10 candidates for the 5 available seats to address county government meeting times and pledge to work to make county government more open to average working people. Voters should encourage candidates who knock on their door to make it possible for average people to attend county government meetings and make it possible for average people to serve in county government. When new elected officials take their seats, meeting times should change.
County Council meetings should be pushed at least 90 minutes later, to 6:00 p.m. County budget hearings should follow the City of Bloomington's model and take place in the evenings, not during the middle of the work day. There is no reason that the County Commissioners cannot meet on Thursday evenings instead of Friday mornings, making it possible for more people to attend.
This is not a partisan issue. This is about open government and public service. County government meeting times have excluded ordinary people from participating for many years, when the Council and Commissioners were controlled by both Democrats and Republicans. It is time for that to change.