Editorial: A lesson in accessibility for City Council

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 29, 2011

The city of Salisbury was an early adapter to the digital age in launching its website several years ago, streaming City Council meetings live and filming them to be broadcast on TV. The city has even embraced Facebook and Twitter. But challengers in this yearís election raise a valuable point when they say the council could be more accessible the old-fashioned way ó by meeting at an hour thatís convenient for the public.
Challenger Ben Lynch has made the councilís 4 p.m. meeting time an issue in his campaign, and others are chiming in. Theyíd like the council to meet at a time when more citizens will have finished their work day. Angry people will always make time to attend council meetings when the city hits a nerve; work schedules didnít deter anti-annexation forces from filling the council chambers a few years ago. But citizens with a casual interest in watching the council in person and contributing during the public comment period are discouraged by the 4 p.m. meeting time.
Itís easy to see why council members and city staff like to meet in the afternoon. The earlier they meet, the fresher they feel ó and the earlier they can adjourn and go home. But serving the public trumps personal convenience. Considering that every other municipal board in Rowan holds at least one evening meeting a month to accommodate the working public, the city has some make-up work to do in Basic Accessibility 101.
As the council selects a new city manager, members can add another item to the list of criteria. They need a manager whoís attuned to the needs of the public and proactive in easing the way for citizen input, even if it means keeping staff late. The framework that City Manager David Treme used for 25 years does not match the level of accountability and access taxpayers expect today.
Along those lines, the cityís website gets a D when it comes to helping citizens contact council members. The elected officialsí direct email addresses and phone numbers are nowhere to be found ó a missed opportunity for the city. The backgrounds and connections that longtime residents take for granted mystify people unfamiliar with the whoís who of Salisbury. The cityís website should bridge the gap between citizens and council members without routing messages through staff.
This yearís City Council candidates are bringing fresh ideas to the table. The energy and thought they have injected into the campaign will invigorate the council that emerges from the Nov. 8 election, whoever the members are. Accessibility is now front and center, right where it should be.