There’s no such thing as perfect timing when scheduling public meetings so they’re accessible to the most participants. But two recent special meetings, held in the morning, drew four times the number of online participants as the two most recent evening meetings.
Granted, the daytime meetings included specific and attention-getting topics, but the increased daytime attendance prompted the Keys Weekly to take a closer look at the city commission’s meeting schedule and public meetings in general.
“There was a time when most people worked 9-to-5 jobs, came home, and filled their evenings with community and social events. The American city council meeting was built to serve people with this lifestyle,” states an article by Boxbast, a company that provides live streaming services for municipal governments. “However, the 9-to-5 lifestyle is no longer the norm. People work all hours of the day. They travel more. They have more outside-of-work activities. With so many things pulling them in different directions, people are prevented from dedicating an evening to their city hall to hear about community happenings.”
Key West’s tourism industry means thousands of residents don’t start work in hotels, bars and restaurants until after 5 p.m., when the commission meetings typically begin.
The two recent daytime commission meetings, held on Nov. 10 and Nov. 19 to discuss a potential citywide curfew and the city’s COVID regulations, respectively, drew 111 to 126 online participants, with several others in person at the commission chambers.
The Nov. 17 regular meeting that started at 5 p.m. — and also included a COVID-related discussion — drew 37 participants. By the time the officials reached the COVID update, which was the last agenda item, the attendance had dropped to 25, according to the information on the Zoom meeting screen.
Since Mayor Teri Johnston took office more than two years ago, the city commission has been meeting at 5 p.m. and has included an e-comment feature that allows citizens to submit online comments about particular agenda topics.
The Keys Weekly asked some local business owners whether daytime or evening meetings are better for them, and some elected officials whether they’d consider holding one daytime and one evening meeting per month to provide greater access.
Restaurant owner Bill Lay, who has attended recent daytime and evening meetings online and in person, said he would prefer daytime meetings, “but I will accommodate whatever,” Lay said.
Restaurant owner Joe Walsh, who has also attended all recent meetings online or in person, said, “I preferred the old 6 p.m. start time on first and third Tuesdays, But I could see arguments for both day or night. Currently, I think COVID responses, protocols, as well as dramatic technology improvements, are stronger drivers than starting times. There are many more remote attendees. One daytime and one evening meeting per month would allow broader participation. I am not sure the city wants that. The decisions seem to come to a vote already decided. The public, if invited, might be able to share a different perspective and we can’t have that.”
Many officials were amenable to possible changes.
Johnston said she would consider alternating one daytime and one evening meeting per month. Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover said, “I’m flexible.”
“I have supported including daytime meetings in the past. I like the idea of alternating daytime and evening meetings to potentially give the most opportunity for public input,” Vice Mayor Sam Kaufman said. “Daytime meetings allow for the advantage of city staff being available. We have had low attendance in the past during daytime meetings and evening meetings. Attendance and participation does seem to be a function of the topics. Historically, our budget workshop meeting is during the day and has very few attendees from the public as an example.”
Commissioner Clayton Lopez had a slightly different perspective.
“I don’t think that the numbers we can look at currently are a true measure of participation. Both of the recent daytime meetings were for a specific purpose and were dealing with issues that required our doing so,” Lopez said. “I would be open to alternating meetings. But strictly holding daytime meetings, I would oppose. Were this topic brought up last year (and it was), I wouldn’t be able to attend because I was still working. That’s true for a number of my constituents as well. My concern is if the meetings were held during the day, I nor my predecessor would have been able to entertain the thought of running, because we both worked. Most working people don’t get off from work until at least 5 p.m.”
When asked about the challenge in a tourism destination, where hundreds of hospitality workers don’t start work until after 5 p.m, Lopez said, “I understand and agree. That’s why although my preference is evening meetings, I wouldn’t oppose alternating.”