Meeting time, lack of contact information on website limit accessibility to City Council members

Published 12:00 am Saturday, October 29, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Unless you do some digging and have an understanding boss, it can be tough to contact Salisbury City Council members or see them in action.
The Council meets twice a month at 4 p.m., when most people are still at work. Salisbury has the only elected board in Rowan County that doesn’t meet after 5 p.m.
“There are many times that issues have come up that I would love to go to the City Council meetings, but I can’t,” said Bob Lambrecht, owner of Critters Cards & Gifts, which closes at 6 p.m. “I have to work.”
Salisbury does not list council members’ email addresses or phone numbers on the city website. To contact their elected officials, constituents must look up home numbers in the phone book, know where council members work, find their email addresses another way or contact City Hall to send an email to the city clerk, who then forwards it.
Websites for Statesville, Concord, Mooresville, Lexington, Kannapolis and Rowan County include email and phone information for each member of the governing board. Even Spencer and Landis websites offer individual email addresses.
“People need to have direct access to their elected officials,” said Ben Lynch, a candidate for City Council who has made the Council’s inaccessibility a campaign issue.
Lynch also advocates moving one monthly Salisbury City Council meeting to 7 p.m.
“If you’re always meeting at 4 p.m., you’re leaving somebody out,” he said.
City Council candidate Blake Jarman can’t arrive at the meetings until 5:15 p.m., after he gets off work.
“Basically, it’s over by then,” Jarman said. “All the incumbents say we have a public comment period, but if no one can come, our voices are not being heard.”
People can watch City Council meetings streaming live on the Internet and broadcast later on public access TV.
It’s not the same as being there, Lambrecht said.
City Council offers a public comment period at every meeting and holds public hearings on certain issues. Some people who want to comment on an issue but can’t attend the meetings write letters or emails instead.
While acknowledged during the meeting, the communications are rarely read.
“If you have an issue with an item, if you feel passionately about something, you can’t convey that with a letter,” Lambrecht said. “I don’t even know if anyone reads it.”
Mayor fine with meetings at 4
Council meetings have been held at 4 p.m. for as long as she can remember, Mayor Susan Kluttz said. Very few people have complained, she said.
The city tries to accommodate everyone, she said. Public hearings and other city business are conducted after recognitions, giving people additional time to get to the meeting.
The Council has delayed agenda items until interested parties can arrive, Kluttz said, and if someone says he or she can only come at 5:30 to comment on something, “then we will have that item at 5:30, no matter where we are on the agenda.”
While she prefers the meetings at 4 p.m., Kluttz said she would consider moving the time. People make better decisions when they are not exhausted, and a 7 p.m. meeting can run to 10 or even later, she said.
“For City Council members who work, that is a long day,” Kluttz said. “I’m not sure it is fair to them.”
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said she wants to move both meetings to 5:30 p.m. That’s late enough for most people who work but early enough to start before people eat, she said.
“Once people go home and have dinner, it’s hard to get them to come back out for a meeting,” Blackwell said.
The majority of people who attend the 4 p.m. City Council meetings work for the city. A handful of others usually attend, including artist Clyde, economic development Director Robert Van Geons and neighborhood advocate William Peoples.
“It makes it look like people don’t care what’s going on, because there’s a big, empty audience,” Lambrecht said.
Councilman Brian Miller said he’s not opposed to changing the time but doesn’t think it would affect attendance. Topic, not time, determines how many people attend, he said.
“People come out when they have something they want to talk about,” Miller said.
Personally, Miller said he prefers the 4 p.m. time so he can be home with his family in the evenings.
Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said he would support trying a later time for six months to see if it boosts attendance. If not, the Council should resume meeting at 4 p.m., he said.
“I understand what they are saying,” Councilman Paul Woodson said. “I could see possibly 6 p.m., but 7 p.m. is tough if it’s a three-hour meeting.”
That could put public comment at 9 or 10 at night, Woodson said.
To avoid that, some boards list public comment first on their agendas.
Council members meet at 4 p.m. because it’s more convenient for them, Lambrecht said.
“This is what works best for them, not John Q. Public,” he said.
Candidate Dale Stephens supports later meetings, and candidate Rip Kersey called them “an absolutely excellent idea.”
“I don’t see why you wouldn’t do it,” Kersey said.
‘Our job to be accessible’
In January 2010, a month after she was elected, Blackwell said she asked for an email address on the city’s server. City employees have email addresses that ends with
She was told no, Blackwell said. Because she believes the city staffer who declined her request was “only the messenger” and the decision came from higher up, Blackwell would not reveal who said no.
The mayor is the only council member with a email address, as well as the only council member with an office in City Hall and a city computer.
Blackwell said all council members should have a city email address with a direct link on the city’s website. Visitors would click the link, opening a new email that would go directly to the council member.
“It’s our job to be accessible,” Blackwell said. “We represent the citizens.”
A email address for each council member would make it easier to comply with public records requests, Blackwell said, and the emails would be archived and backed-up on the city’s server.
Any email to or from a City Council member about city business is a public record, whether sent using a personal or government email address.
Currently, there is no “email” option on the city’s website. The “contact” option gives several alternatives, including “ask a question about this website”and “other questions.” Emails sent using either of these alternatives go to the city’s marketing and communications team, overseen by Interim City Manager Doug Paris.
The city’s website is due for an overhaul, Paris said, and the communications team has been exploring ways to make the site more interactive and engaging.
“We’ve got several items we feel need to be improved,” he said.
They are considering adding a way to contact elected officials, Paris said. The team wants residents to use the website on a daily basis for information and communication, he said.
“We are looking to have a web experience that is a bit different than other cities in North Carolina,” Paris said.
Paris said city staff would be happy to provide a email address to any council member who wants one.
Putting individual email addresses and phone numbers on the website, as well as changing the 4 p.m. meeting time, are council decisions, Paris said.
Straight to the source
While he said he respects people’s need for privacy, Jarman said he favors putting email addresses and phone numbers for all council members on the website. He said he doesn’t like the idea of emails from constituents going through the city clerk or city communications team.
“I would want it to come straight to me,” Jarman said.
Stephens said having individual email addresses on the city’s website would have helped him when he was annexed into the city and wanted to file a complaint about damage to his property. He said he tried to reach a city employee for more than a week and would have contacted a council member if that had been an option on the website.
Kluttz said the city needs to update its website, which has been neglected. The idea of putting email addresses on the site came up a few years ago but was never pursued, she said.
Council members are not trying to avoid public contact, she said.
“I’m glad this has come up,” Kluttz said. “It had fallen through the cracks. It will be good for the new council to consider this.”
Miller, Kennedy and Woodson said they would consider putting their email addresses on the city’s website, although they said they are already very accessible to residents.
“Where I work, people can walk in every day of the week to talk to me, and they do,”said Miller, a banker.
Woodson also said he regularly talks to residents at his business.
“They get me all day long now,” he said.
Kennedy said he takes phone calls from constituents at home and work, and includes his email address on his business cards.
Residents shouldn’t have to figure out where council members work and then frequent their business to communicate with them, Lynch said.
“What if I don’t bank at BB&T?” he said. “What if I don’t do my dry cleaning at Vogue?”
For council members who work fulltime jobs in addition to their council duties, facing a full email inbox every night could be a problem.
Miller said he doesn’t have a re-election website like other candidates because he was afraid he couldn’t keep it updated and answer all the emails. Woodson, who prides himself on returning every phone call and meeting with every resident who requests his attention, said he would do his best to answer emails.
“That’s what worries me,” he said. “I have to work, and I don’t have a secretary.”
How to contact City Council
Mayor Susan Kluttz 704-636-9522
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell 704-638-0708
William “Pete” Kennedy 704-638-0673
Brian Miller 704-639-0539
Paul Woodson 704-633-5411
How to contact other candidates
Blake Jarman 704-213-7743
Rip Kersey 704-636-7007
Ben Lynch 704-245-5190
Dale Stephens 704-603-4248
Meeting times for elected Rowan boards
China Grove: 7 p.m. first Tuesday
Cleveland: 7 p.m. first Monday
East Spencer: 6:30 p.m. first Monday
Faith: 7 p.m. second Tuesday
Granite Quarry: 7 p.m. first Monday
Kannapolis: 6 p.m. second and fourth Mondays
Landis: 7 p.m. first Monday
Rowan County: 3 p.m. first Monday, 6 p.m. third Monday
Salisbury: 4 p.m. first and third Tuesdays
Spencer 7 p.m. second Tuesday
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.