Spencer to continue informal meetings
By Emily Ford
SPENCER - Aldermen will continue holding informal gatherings the day before the official Spencer town board meeting, even though two aldermen raised concerns about the transparency of the events.
Three months ago, Town Manager Larry Smith began hosting office hours from 6 to 7 p.m. on the Monday before the monthly town board meeting. Smith said he wanted to open up lines of communication with aldermen.
The town has notified the media about the office hours, including the possibility that a quorum may attend.
The gatherings have been open to the public, although no one has attended but elected officials and town staff.
Alderman Reid Walters, who has been unable to attend any of the gatherings due to work commitments, raised concerns Tuesday night. Alderman Kevin Jones, who has young children, also has been unable to attend and said he was concerned.
The mayor and four other aldermen each have attended all or most of the gatherings.
"It limits conversation that needs to happen in a public meeting while the public is there," Walters said.
Walters and Jones said they feel less informed than aldermen who are able to attend.
Public meetings keep elected officials in check while they are setting public policy, Walters said.
Smith said the informal gatherings are meant to set agenda items, avoid surprises during town board meetings and take care of administrative details, not to set policy.
Once during Monday's gathering, aldermen began to discuss the substance of an agenda item, Smith said, and he stopped them.
The gatherings also have served to dispel rumors and myths, Smith said.
Smith keeps notes at the gatherings, which he emails to all aldermen and the Post. He apologized for not sending the notes this month until a few hours before the town board meeting and said he would send them more quickly in the future.
Walters and Jones said that would help, but Walters continued to express concern that members of the public aren't attending the gatherings.
With Smith's office hours, the town now hosts three evening meetings during the third week of the month - the informal gathering on Monday, the town board meeting on Tuesday and the Small Town Main Street community meeting on Thursday (a standing meeting for the next two years).
"That's a lot to ask of the public," Walters said.
Alderman Jeff Morris said he was skeptical about the office hours at first but has found them useful. He said they have bolstered his confidence in town staff.
"There is nothing sinister about it," Morris said.
Alderman David Smith said the gatherings help him prepare for town board meetings.
"It's more like an old country store where you get around the pot-bellied stove and talk," Smith said.
Mayor Jody Everhart said the gatherings give aldermen a chance to direct town staff and no votes are taken.
Mayor Pro Tem Jim Gobbel said he understands concerns about the gatherings, but he finds them productive.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.