published Monday, March 4th, 2013

Meeting times may be barrier to public participation

Evening meetings of local municipal leaders are better attended than morning meetings of county commissioners, but elected officials are split over whether time of day impacts access to government gatherings for John Q. Public.

Pam Ladd, chairwoman of the Chattanooga City Council, says weekly council meetings -- which are held after normal business hours -- are very well attended by residents. But she said issues at hand play a larger role in drawing crowds.

"Our reach is just closer to neighborhoods and closer to residents. ... I would think more than time of day, it would be issues covered," Ladd said.

At the other end of the spectrum, East Ridge Councilman Marc Gravitt attributed that city's packed evening meetings specifically to scheduling.

"Absolutely, I think the time of day has a lot to do with it. Most people work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If they approach their boss and ask for time off ... to go to a council meeting, that's not likely going to work," Gravitt said.

Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd says changing times for county meetings -- which are held at 9:30 a.m. and typically attended by government staff and media -- would take down barriers for residents interested in day-to-day government.

If commissioners met during lunch hours, or in the evenings, more residents might get involved, Boyd said.

"I think they would. It's tough for people to get off work for one or two hours in the morning to come to a meeting," he said.

A change would benefit commissioners who work full time, as well, he said.

"For my own personal situation, meeting in the afternoons or evenings would be more convenient for me," Boyd said.

Commissioner Joe Graham said he doesn't see a problem with public turnout at meetings.

"It's usually good. We do have lulls like we have now, but it's usually good," Graham said. "We are just starting the budget cycle, so it's kind of in a lull right now. But once things get going, it will pick up."

Echoing Boyd, Graham said evening meetings would be better for working commissioners.

Chairman Larry Henry, who has served on the commission for 12 years, said the meeting time debate comes and goes. Ultimately, residents come to meetings when they are affected by commission actions, he said.

"If we've got a real pertinent issue that really affects people, they are going to make an effort to be there," Henry said. "You can look at our planning commission meetings and see that with zoning issues."

School issues also bring crowds, he said.

Still, Henry said if five commissioners want to change the meeting times -- which have not changed since 1978 when the commission was formed -- he wouldn't oppose them.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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