When asked what starting time would boost attendance at City Commission meetings, Lakeland Now readers overwhelmingly favored evening meetings.
Among 26 people commenting on a Facebook post, Nancy Murphy Brink Moses succinctly summed up what 25 of them had to say: “Evening meetings certainly make it more accessible to the public.”
“If they are serious about public input, evenings,” Charlie Kersey commented.
Until last September, Lakeland City Commission meetings for years started at 9 a.m. on the first and third Mondays of the month. A year ago, commissioners changed the meeting time to 3 p.m.
The reasoning for that time slot rather than later in the day was it would not require salaried city employees to change their work schedule or for hourly city employees to go into overtime and it could provide working residents time to stop by for public comment periods around 5 p.m., even if they had to leave work a bit early.
On Monday, Commissioner Bill Read made a motion to change the start time back to 9 a.m. since there did not appear to be much difference in the number of people coming for the public comment portion of the meeting.
He withdrew the motion after considerable discussion among commissioners, agreeing that it would be better to wait until after the Nov. 5 election. Three of seven commission seats are up for election.
Read is being challenged for the Northeast District seat by Jiwa Farrell.
In an email, Farrell said that both the 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. start time have the same issue, being “in the middle of the traditional work day of 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
“Evening meetings would work to overcome the traditional work schedule; however, I want to know how many people fall into this category.
“While “a combination of starting times is a compromise between the two,” she questioned “will it accommodate the citizens appropriately?”
Read said by email on Thursday, “I personally prefer the 9 a.m. time. We changed the time to 3 p.m. in hopes that we would get more of our citizens to participate. It appears the attendance has been about the same.
“I think the afternoon meeting are more costly to our citizens that have an issue, thus need professional consultants to assist them,” Read said. “The timing is not conducive to normal work hours.
“The same will apply to meetings that would start at 5 p.m. or later, and our city staffers would be staying much later,” Read said.
Commissioner Philip Walker, who is unopposed in his bid for re-election representing the Northwest District, said during Monday’s meeting that he favors starting a 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. start so daytime workers could more easily make it to meetings.
Commission Justin Troller, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, emailed LkldNow that throughout his 12 years in office he has favored evening meetings as being more accessible to the public.
“The conversation should not be based on head count but should be based on creating the opportunity for our ‘bosses’, the taxpayer, the opportunity to attend without creating hardships for their work and/or family life,” Troller said.
The four candidates running to replace Troller for the at-large Seat No. 2 on the Commission voiced a variety of opinions.
Ricky Shirah said that he would likely vote to keep the meeting time in the afternoon or move it back to the morning.
Although there is a chance more people would come to an evening meeting, Shirah said that people who are interested in commission proceedings generally do what he does: watch the proceedings on local cable or the city website. However, if “they are directly affected by an issue, then they will show up no matter what the time is,” Shirah said.
The downside of evening meetings is “we will have to pay city staff to be there,” Shirah said.
Shandale Terrell wrote in an email: “I believe the city of Lakeland Commission meetings should be held at 3 p.m. or the evening.”
“Having the meetings at 3 p.m. or the evening will make it conducive for the everyday citizens to attend the meetings,” Terrell said. “This will allow him or her to have a better understanding on what is occurring within the city of Lakeland.”
Carole Philipson emailed: “Since there appears to be interest from the public as your survey showed, I would suggest widely publicizing the new time and trying evening meetings for two months (four meetings) at 6:30 p.m. and evaluating whether the time change has increased attendance from the public and increased public comment. If not, I would go back to the 9 a.m. meeting time.
“Trying the evening time would allow constituents to attend the commission meeting if there is an issue they are concerned with and want to make public comment on without leaving work early or coming in late,” Philipson said.
Chad McLeod wrote in an email: “I’m open to moving the meeting time and tend to favor evening commission meetings.
“It’s hard for many people to leave work and other commitments to attend a meeting at City Hall during the day,”
McLeod, like all the candidates, remarked that its is important for the meetings to be at a time that encourages public participation.
Pablo Sologaistoa had also filed to run for the at-large seat but withdrew from the race last week.
LkldNow reader Gwen B. Allen commented online, “Evening meeting is needed for more engagement. They tried to be more responsive to residents but within the city’s comfort zone (traditional working hours). The same folks that can’t make the 9 a.m., can’t make the 3 p.m. … probably more since it’s right in the middle of school pick-up hour.”
Gus Palas said, “Evening meeting is optimal time. Three p.m. was a compromise so the public might have a greater opportunity to speak at 5 p.m. Nine a.m. is not an acceptable time.”
Ron Marcellus said, “Meeting at 6 p.m. provides the best opportunity for the most people to attend, witness, comment and otherwise participate. That the commission is considering reverting back to a meeting most limiting to the public very much speaks of limiting democracy.”
And Sheila Hollowell commented, “Most people cannot get off work at 9 a.m.; neither can they get off work at 3 p.m.”
All but one of the 26 comments favored evening meetings, the exception being a reader who suggested alternating meetings between mornings and evenings.
City Manager Tony Delgado said the impact was negligible as far as staffing and operations when the meeting time was changed from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
“If the meeting were later in evening, obviously city staff would have to stay a bit later,” Delgado said.
Salaried employees, including department directors and managers, may have to reschedule their work hours to remain within 40 to 50 hours a week, he said.
And some hourly employees would have to be paid overtime or be given compensatory time to attend a meeting so they could remain within the 40-hour workweek, he said.
While managers can answer most questions that commissioners have, there are some issues that involve hourly employees, such as planners or utility workers who have written a report, conducted a review or vetted an issue, Delgado said.
“It depends on the issue and what is being discussed,” Delgado said. “If we have to dig deeper, an hourly employee may be involved.
“And we have to make sure security is in place, downstairs from the third-floor commission chambers. And there is the staff involved in the production of the telecast and social media.”
Still, Delgado said, “I would suspect the impact would be minimal unless there is something very specific for a large number of employees to be at a general meeting.”
The other issue is whether the public will actually attend in larger numbers if the time is changed to evenings, Delgado said.
“The commission has tabled it until new commissioners come onboard or current commissioners are re elected so they have a say in the process,” Delgado said. “That will push us about 50 days before it comes back up for discussion.”
At that time, the city will do some data collecting, make inquiries about the impact on businesses, consultants and attorneys who work with the city, and look into whether cities that have night-time meetings seem to have better public turnout, he said.
“Other municipalities have done it. I don’t know how much they vetted out before, such as during agenda study meetings. We would have to look at that,” Delgado said.
Shirley Lowrance, longtime Auburndale city clerk and finance director, said the Auburndale city charter designated a 7:30 p.m. meeting time, although a public vote about a dozen years ago changed that to 7 p.m.
As far as public participation at meetings, Lowrance said, “It is very issue driven. If it is not something the community is interested in, such as a controversial zoning issue, the turnout is very light.”
However, Lowrance said, “I would think you could serve community better by meeting at night.”
Lakeland Commissioner Stephanie Madden said in an email that the shift to the 3 p.m. start time and moving the audience participation time to approximately 5 p.m. start time seems to have allowed “folks to show up for the issues that citizens most cared about, and let their voice be heard.
“I felt the big issues, like the Confederate Monument, building heights and developments that affected neighborhoods, garnered big gatherings for that end of meeting audience participation,“ Madden said
While “it is helpful to have all city staff on hand for questions during the 9-5 timeframe, ”with evening meetings only staff that had direct involvement would likely be asked to attend.”
And Madden raised another issue about evening start time. “Our meetings are long, and the biggest complaints I receive are from folks who come and have to wait through the entire meeting for their chance to speak. If our meetings started later, that would push back the community conversation to a potentially late hour, now they run 3-6 p.m., would people prefer to come out at 6-9 p.m.?”
Mayor Bill Mutz and Commissioners Scott Franklin and Sara Roberts McCarley have not responded to LkldNow requests for comment. If we hear from them, we’ll add their comments.