After a nine-month trial of afternoon meetings and evening public hearings, the Sussex County Council voted this week to return to a modified version of its prior schedule of morning meetings and afternoon public hearings.
On Sept. 22, the council voted 3-2, with Council President Vance Phillips and Councilwoman Joan Deaver in opposition, to go back to meeting on Tuesdays at 10 a.m., with public hearings set for the same day at 1:30 p.m., beginning in January.
The council had experimented since January 2009 with meeting at 3 p.m. and holding public hearings at 6 p.m., to better accommodate citizens who work during the daytime. But Councilman Michael Vincent said he was concerned about the impact of the nighttime hearings on those citizens who work at night and proposed a move back to a modified version of the original schedule, which had also originally included one afternoon/evening meeting per month.
“We had better attendance at daytime meetings than in the evening,” Vincent said. “But my bigger concern was that I’m receiving lots of e-mails from people talking about making sure the public has access.”
“The [Planning and Zoning Commission] meets at 6 p.m., and we meet at 6 p.m.,” he noted of public hearings. “There’s a section of the public out there that works in the evenings, and if you work in the evenings, you have no access to the meetings.”
Vincent noted also that some of the area’s elderly don’t drive at nighttime.
“It better suits the public, if P&Z meets in the evenings, that we meet in the daytime,” he said.
Of those evening-shift workers, Vincent added, “They may not be the majority, but they still deserve accommodation.”
Deaver said her constituents who had e-mailed her about the issue had “overwhelmingly” preferred the 3 p.m. meetings and 6 p.m. hearings.
Voicing support for greater availability to citizens with meetings later in the day, Deaver argued, “To change this now would be the opposite of where we’re going.”
“A lot of the people who responded to this issue have the feeling that the council is trying to hide,” she added. “This is against the working people of this county.”
Phillips said he, too, believed the earlier meeting times did not do as much to make the council available to the public.
“I said all along that I personally prefer day meetings, but, as public servant I felt evening meetings served the public better,” he said, adding that the Department of Labor indicated 85 percent of people work during the daytime. He also said he was concerned that the county could possibly end up with fewer candidates in the pool for council seats by having meetings in the daytime, since many of them may work during the day.
“There’s no other local government [in Delaware] that has meetings in the daytime,” he reminded the council. “Even the school board meets at nighttime.”
Councilman George Cole said he could see both sides of the issue but favored the change back to morning meetings and afternoon public hearings.
“I advocated the change,” he noted of January’s switch to later meetings. Cole also pointed to that day’s meeting attendance, with just four or five people in attendance who were not county staff. “That’s not any great increase, and there’s been no decrease. I have had people tell me they don’t like it.”
“The only time I saw an increase was whenever there was something controversial,” Cole pointed out. “The average public hearing attracts the applicant and just a handful of people. And we have the ability that, if we see a big one coming down the road, we can accommodate them.”
“There have been complaints on both sides,” Cole acknowledged, noting also the improved ability to get staff in to speak to the council on certain issues at earlier meeting times. “When I was in the minority, it was nice to be able to call somebody in here. A year from now, I’ll be willing to revisit this again,” he added.
The change will come with the council’s first meeting in January 2010. The council meetings will take place at 10 a.m., with public hearings at 1:30 p.m. But the council will not hold any evening meetings, as it did one week per month when previously meeting at those times. All the meetings will be held at the same times.
“I didn’t like it with three day meetings and one night meeting,” said Cole.
Deaver labeled the mixed schedule “very confusing.”
“The night meetings didn’t have any advantage except that a few times I showed up at 10 o’clock,” added Cole with some mirth.
County Administrator David B. Baker said daytime sessions will help cut down on staff overtime and energy costs associated with afternoon and evening council meetings.