Both said they heard from many constituents during their campaigns that one of the two meetings a month should be in the evening so working people can attend.
Aragon suggested the question should be put on the City utility bill, customers checking yes or no boxes to evening meetings, with city staff counting the results of the informal vote.
City Manager Morris Madrid agreed, “That would be the fairest way.”
Mayor Sandra Whitehead resisted the idea of evening meetings.
“We used to have evening meetings and they were very long. Some of us work and we are fresher in the morning,” Whitehead said, and City staff has to be paid overtime to attend.
“If a majority of the citizens want it, then I wouldn’t mind,” Whitehead said, “But if it’s the same six or 10 people who go to meetings, then holding evening meetings is not fair to the public, staff or commissioners.”
Whitehead said people can attend online, but failed to note those too are morning meetings. The City has used the free GoToMeeting application to hold meetings online simultaneously with the physical meeting. The online meetings are not preserved for the public and cannot be watched later.
The COVID-19 pandemic required the City to provide an online-meeting option.
The GoToMeeting audio, probably due to the City’s microphones, is extremely bad. The Sun has observed several people sign off shortly after signing on. The “chat” function allowed attendees to state they couldn’t hear throughout the meetings. The City didn’t improve the audio, but instead disabled the chat function.
People then sent complaints about the audio by email to the City Commission and City Manager Madrid, the Sun being cc’d and adding its own complaint. Those emails remain unanswered.
Whitehead also argued evening meetings aren’t necessary because the public “can visit with us,” but the only contact information for City Commissioners are email addresses. The Sun’s numerous emails to Whitehead, the City Commission and Madrid go unanswered with the rare exception.
The Sun has received dozens of forwarded emails from residents that have also gone unanswered. The City Commission’s and Madrid’s lack of response has been noted on Facebook posts, emails to the Sun and at the podium during public comment.
Lack of response and transparency was the biggest issue voiced by the community during the city-commission election last March, and the ability to get answers or to attend meetings is more difficult now.
Online-meeting attendance before the COVID-19 outbreak—with better audio—used to be available. Citizens could watch the meeting in the evening if that was more convenient. The City broadcast and then archived meetings on YouTube. But the City let its contract with the communications company lapse in January, without informing the public, and that option has not been available for six months and counting.
Why the contract was allowed to lapse, when or if city meetings will be broadcast and archived again, has not been addressed. Several months ago Madrid mentioned he was looking into a new camera system for the Commission Chambers, not informing the City Commission the old one was disabled, and has said nothing since then.
Besides Whitehead, Commissioner Paul Baca also resisted the idea of evening meetings. “If only 100 to 200 people of 6,500 want them that isn’t a majority. We are tired at night.”
But Baca should not minimize 100 to 200 votes. First, the City’s population has been estimated at 5,865 by the U.S. Census since 2018, down from the 2010 census count of 6,475, so he should revise his denominator.
Second, he may want to use the number of people who vote as his measure. About 1,200 people vote during city commission elections at the top end. The city commissioner may want to consider how many voted for him or her as a more personal guide. City Commissioner Brendan Tolley got the most votes—600— in the March election, and 100 people would be 16 percent and 200 people would be 33 percent of his voting public. In the last decade the most votes have gone to Steve Green, with 800 votes. One hundred people would be 12 percent and 200 people would be 25 percent of his voting public.
Madrid also minimized the utility-bill vote before it is held. He wants attendance to determine the decision, not a vote. “The louder few don’t necessarily represent the community, and attendance is a barometer. If there is no difference in attendance, then there is no reason to hold evening meetings.”
Forrister noted the City Commission “already held one evening meeting with no attendance.” She was referring to online attendance, since the evening meeting was held after the public was told they could only attend online. She did not acknowledge The GoToMeeting problems. Computer access, technical comfort with the GoToMeeting app, technical know-how, beyond the audio problem, should also be considered, since 30 percent of the population is over 65.
Forrister will not base her decision on one meeting’s attendance, however. She agreed with Aragon, “We should take a survey and see.”
The City Commission didn’t make a motion or take a vote on the matter. Evening meetings wasn’t on the July 8 agenda, and only agenda items may be acted on, according to the Open Meetings Act. This ensures the public has sufficient notice to attend the meeting and give public comment, if allowed. The three new commission members have been successful in reinstituting public comment at the second meeting of the month, which the prior City Commission disallowed.
It was resident Hans Townsend who brought up the issue of evening meetings. During public comment he said he had to leave work to attend the 9 a.m. meeting, which was difficult and bad for his business. Why had there been only one evening meeting, he asked, and what was the City Commission doing about it?
The City Commission Chambers now allows about 20 people to attend, having removed other seating to keep a six-foot distance. People are required to wear masks, which are available at the door. Townsend and one other member of the public attended. The rest of attendees were City staff, on the agenda, or members of the press.
The City Commission discussed evening meetings under the agenda heading “response to public comment.”
They agreed, informally, to take a vote, via the utility bill, whether to hold evening meetings. When those bills will go out was not discussed.