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Council discusses possible change in meeting time

SALISBURY — For 58 years, Salisbury City Council has started its regular meetings at 4 p.m.
Should that change? Would public participation be greater if the meeting times — council meets on the first and third Tuesdays — were moved back to 5 p.m., 6 p.m. or 7 p.m.?
In the 2011 municipal election, some candidates made the council’s late-afternoon meeting time an issue.
But at least three council members said Thursday they saw no need to change the meeting time, unless they heard strong resident sentiment for it.
Gathering for its annual goal-setting retreat at the Rowan Museum, council decided to stew on the matter at least two more weeks and take it up again March 5, when it meets at 4 p.m. as always.
Meanwhile, council members hope to receive feedback from residents on what their meeting time preference is, if they have any.
“If folks have a desire to change, let us know,” Councilman Brian Miller said. “… Light up the switchboard, let’s see what happens.”
Miller himself had no preference on the meeting time.
“Tell me what time to be here,” he said, “and I’ll show up.”
City Clerk Myra Heard gave a presentation to council on Salisbury’s history of meeting times, how much the nature of public participation has changed, comparisons with other municipalities and what the council might try.
Her team included City Manager Doug Paris, former planning director Joe Morris and Deputy City Clerk Kelly Baker.
The team concluded the nature of public participation has changed and is mostly issue-driven. It also credited the city with expanding the ways residents can communicate and participate, through vehicles such as Facebook, Twitter, the city’s website, email access, online streaming of council meetings and Access 16 broadcasts of council meetings.
“Technology has made it easier for citizens to participate and have their voices heard,” Heard reported.
The city’s investigation of meeting times elsewhere looked at other municipalities in Rowan County and also conducted an survey of 16 cities comparable in population which meet two times a month, as Salisbury does.
Out of 32 total meetings in those cities, 15 started at 7 p.m.; four at 6:30 p.m.; seven at 6 p.m.; three at 5:30 p.m.; and one each at 5 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 8:30 a.m.
Salisbury has the earliest meeting time among municipalities in Rowan County. The Rowan County Board of Commissioners meets at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. for its two meetings every month.
Heard’s team recommended a one-year pilot in which Salisbury City Council’s first meeting of the month would be held at 4 p.m.; the second, 6 p.m.
Over that year’s time, the city could measure any increase or decrease in public participation at the meetings, then revisit the issue at its 2014 retreat to determine what the times should be.
Councilman Pete Kennedy, who is in his 20th year on the council, said he preferred to stay with 4 p.m. He said that particular time has served the city well during his years on council.
Councilwoman Karen Alexander, a recent appointment to the council to replace Susan Kluttz, asked who had complained about the 4 p.m. time. “Maybe we should just stay with 4 o’clock,” she said.
Kennedy noted how the issue came up during the 2011 election. Mayor Paul Woodson and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell both acknowledged hearing some past complaints about the time’s being too early.
Many people are still working when the 4 p.m. meeting begins.
“I’m leaning toward keeping it where it is,” Woodson said.
If the time of a second meeting were to change, Woodson suggested 5 p.m., not 6 p.m., because public hearings would end up being held too late with a 6 p.m. starting time.
Alexander noted senior citizens might prefer the present 4 p.m. time, so they can avoid driving in the dark.
Blackwell suggested council give the Heard team’s recommendation a three-month trial, instead of a year.
“That way, if it’s not being effective, we don’t have to live with it for a year,” she said
Blackwell also recommended council’s scheduling its issue-related public hearings on one monthly meeting date and general public-comment periods on the other.
“That would help balance the length of our meetings,” Blackwell said, adding it was hard for council to make wise decisions when the members are worn out.
Heard said her team tried to gather estimates of average public attendance at meetings of different times, but all the numbers were guesses and showed no real trends.
Miller said one problem he has with two different meeting times is the confusion it could cause. When he plans to attend county commissioner meetings, for example, he has to find out whether the meeting time is 3 p.m. or 6 p.m.
In February 1955, when council officially set the 4 p.m. time for meetings on the first and third Tuesdays, it was a change from meeting at 4 p.m. every Tuesday.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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