Scott Tibbs, at Hoosier Access, has a post about public meeting times that I wanted to flag, not so much to single out Scott, but to address this notion I hear occasionally about changing public meeting times to allow for participation by the public.
The state legislature should start by making it illegal for any local government elected body to meet before 6:00 p.m. Ideally, this should apply to boards and commissions as well, but the first priority should be to enable more public scrutiny of elected officials as they decide budgets and legislation. This does not need to be implemented immediately, as local government can be given a couple years to change their schedules to allow for more public participation.
The idea is that people will be more likely to go to these meetings if they are not during traditional work hours. It’s plausible on its face, but, in my experience, later meeting times do not result in a notable increase in public attendance of meetings. In addition, because you are holding these meetings after hours, the unit of government faces increased costs associated with employees working longer hours and keeping public buildings open later than usual. Finally, I tend to oppose the State telling local government how to run its business.
I’m not at all against the units of local government accommodating public interest. Sometimes there are issues that are contentious or capture the popular imagination; and where there is a great deal of public input to be had, the meetings should be held at times and places that are convenient to public input. But the truth is that the public, by and large, has little interest in the minutiae of government work; and has neither the time nor the inclination to investigate the details on most issues. The result of a mandatory post-6 p.m. meeting requirement would generally be empty meeting rooms, later at night.
I would suggest that, if work hours are a barrier to public participation in government, we start by expanding election hours or moving election days into times that are not traditional work hours. If that yields greater participation, maybe it would be time for serious consideration of a state mandate for moving meeting times.