Citizens irked by council meeting time
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — With a new website, published email addresses and electronic agenda packets, the city of Salisbury is becoming more accessible and transparent, officials say.
Critics argue while those changes are a step in the right direction, the city hasn’t instituted the easiest and quickest change to allow more people to participate in local government — move City Council meetings to a later time.
For years, City Council has met at 4 p.m. the first and third Tuesdays of the month, a time when many working people can’t attend. The meeting time became an issue during last year’s municipal election.
Although council members at their annual goal-setting session in February agreed to study and possibly change the meeting time, some critics have said enough already.
“I would have liked to have seen it immediately changed,” said Ben Lynch, who made inaccessibility a campaign issue during his failed bid for City Council. “It’s the cheapest, most cost-effective way — before you redo the website or do anything else — to find out what’s on the mind of citizens.”
Salisbury City Council is the only elected body in Rowan County that meets before 5 p.m. and one of two boards — along with the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education — that meets before 6 p.m.
Rowan County Board of Commissioners meets twice a month, once at 3 p.m. and then at 6 p.m.
Councilwoman Maggie Blackwell, who campaigned on bumping both City Council meetings to 5:30 p.m., said she’s satisfied with the city’s progress on the issue.
Salisbury leaders take their time before making changes, and the philosophy has served the city well, Blackwell said.
“Whenever we make a change, we want to make sure we are changing for the better,” Blackwell said. “I see no harm in looking at when other people meet.”
But Bob Lambrecht said the whole thing sounds like just another empty campaign promise.
A downtown merchant who doesn’t close his shop until 6 p.m., Lambrecht had advocated for years for a later meeting time.
“Not only for me, but for the general population,” Lambrecht said. “What percentage of working people can attend a 4 p.m. meeting?”
He calls the afternoon meeting time “a total slap in the face” and said it seems council members put their desire to be home in the evenings ahead of their need to hear from working people.
Blackwell said she has not backed down from her pledge to pursue a later meeting time and believes City Council will take up the issue within a year of setting the goal. The clock began ticking on new council goals July 1, the start of the fiscal year.
So far, City Manager Doug Paris has assigned City Clerk Myra Heard to shepherd the goal through the city’s process.
Heard and her team — Paris, Deputy City Clerk Kelly Baker and Community Planning Services Director Joe Morris — have outlined the following strategy:
• Research best practices regarding meeting times, including consulting with experts at UNC School of Government
• Survey other cities the same size to see when they meet and how many people attend
• Look at the history of the current meeting time to determine why it was set for 4 p.m.
• Report findings to City Council by spring 2013
The goal, which falls under the objective “Improve organizational transparency,” reads, “Study City Council meeting times in relation to citizen participation.”
Making the list of City Council goals for the year is no small feat. The meeting time goal, as well as additional initiatives underway, show City Council is committed to increasing transparency, Blackwell said.
“One of our key roles as City Council members is to be accountable to people, and it is hard to be accountable if you are not accessible,” she said.
Blackwell said she’s thrilled that contact information — email address, phone number, mailing address — for each City Council member now appears on the city’s new website at www.salisburync.gov.
“That was long overdue,” she said.
In January 2010, a month after she was first elected, Blackwell said she asked for an email address on the city’s server. City employees have email addresses that ends with salisburync.gov.
She was denied.
Now, all council members have a “salisburync.gov” email address.
The city went a step further and used council members’ whole names, rather than initials, to make it easier for constituents to remember the new email addresses, Blackwell said.
The city’s new website itself improves transparency, she said.
Launched Thursday, the redesigned site will help residents engage with city staff and leaders, said Elaney Hasselmann, public information officer.
In addition to City Council members, the website points out how to reach leaders of city divisions and staff members heading up specific projects.
“All sections of the website, really every page, will give direct contact information,” Hasselmann said. “That’s not something we’ve done well in the past.”
The city’s communications team redesigned the website in-house and will manage it themselves, saving taxpayers between $150,000 and $200,000, Hasselmann said.
The team — Hasselmann, Jason Parks and Maurice Price — did extensive research, studying other sites for both cities and private industry, like MTV, to find a good mix of information and engagement, Hasselmann said.
“We wanted a blend between traditional government and cutting edge,” she said.
The website will be updated regularly, and city leaders will have direct access to the information on the site about their division or department.
The new site offers meeting agendas and minutes and city budgets for the past 10 years. Live streaming of City Council meetings has been enhanced, and an improved calendar better organizes city events, Hasselmann said.
Eventually, residents will be able to pay bills online and fill out forms to report potholes and broken street lights.
The city’s new one-stop shop will have a section on the website where developers and business owners can fill out forms online for new projects like restaurants and shops.
“With each phase, the site will get more interactive,” Hasselmann said.
Blackwell said the city must maintain traditional means of communication for residents who don’t use computers.
“We have to be careful not to leave people behind,” she said. “As long as we remember that, I think all of this is an amazing step forward.”
In another step toward more transparency, City Council will begin using an electronic agenda packet at Tuesday’s meeting.
The city prepared 15 typical 30-page paper agenda packets as well, but once the bugs are worked out and the agenda goes totally paperless, Salisbury will save tens of thousands of pieces of paper a year.
“We are really excited about this,” Baker said. “It’s something we’ve wanted to do for a while.”
Each City Council member has an iPad tablet to use during meetings and take home. The electronic agendas will be shared using the free Dropbox cloud storage system, and council members will use a $9.99 application called iAnnotate to make notes, circle items and otherwise “mark up” their electronic agendas.
Once the system is working well, the city will extend Dropbox invitations to any resident who requests the agenda, Baker said. Because the packet will be stored in the cloud, anyone will be able to view the agenda, as well as pages of supporting material from city staff.
Electronic agendas will save not only paper but time, Heard said.
“It’s going to make us more efficient and help us to share information more easily with people who request it,” she said. “We are here for our citizens and want to serve them to the best of our ability, and these things will help us accomplish that.”
Although he criticized the delay in changing City Council meeting times, Lynch praised other steps toward more transparency.
“I think the wheels of government turn incredibly slowly, but they are making positive strides in listening to constituents,” Lynch said. “They have become more accessible through a variety of medium.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.