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County government meeting schedules discourage public participation

By Scott Tibbs, August 17, 2005

As the Democrat-controlled county council winds up the 2005 budget hearings, I think an important point needs to be raised about the accessibility of the process. Actually, "inaccessibility of the process" might be a better term. County budget hearings start around 9:00 a.m. and go late into the afternoon. This schedule presents a difficulty for people who work during the day. By scheduling the work sessions and hearings at a time when most people are at work, the County Council is able to avoid the glare of public attention. This is unfortunate, especially considering the Council is considering major tax increases for 2006.

In all fairness to the Democrats, the County Council opted for a similar schedule in 2003 and 2004 when the Republicans were in charge. If I recall correctly, the 2002 hearings (when the Council had 4-3 Democrat majority) followed a similar pattern. Republicans clearly do not have any room to criticize the Democrats on the scheduling of the hearings.

That does not mean the schedule should not change. The Bloomington City Council provides a much better model, with the hearings starting at 6:00 p.m. This gives people time to get home from work and then go to City Hall if there is an agenda item that generates interest. The Herald-Times should be banging the drum for a schedule that is much more friendly to citizen participation than it is now.

That is not the only area where scheduling of county meetings discourages citizen participation. The Redistricting Study Committee will meet tonight at 5:00 pm in the Health Services Building. While that time is certainly more friendly than the County Council's budget meetings, it still overlaps with most work schedules, forcing people to arrive late and miss a significant portion of the meeting.

Regular meetings of both the County Council and the County Commissioners meetings are scheduled during the work day as well. While the Council's 4:30 start time is friendlier than the Commissioners' 9:00 a.m. start time, both bodies should consider ways to make it easier for the public to attend. The County Council could move their meetings to an hour or two later. The Commissioners could pick a more friendly time as well. Regular meetings of the Bloomington City Council, meanwhile, start at 7:30 p.m.

Next year, the County Council should look at ways to make the county budgetary process more friendly to citizen input. Doing that would be a good way to earn the voters trust before the 2006 election.