Why should we attend village, town, or city council meetings? Beth Fenton, a councilor for the Village of Ada, offers her take on how councils operate and how and why citizens can and should get involved.
Beth Fenton: How Citizens Engage with Village Council
As a councilor for the Village of Ada for the past 7 years, I have made numerous observations about citizens’ impressions as to how the Village of Ada is run. (Let me point out that the following observations and opinions are solely mine.)
Even though council meetings are open to the public (except for executive sessions), residents rarely participate in the process. I don’t know if this is because they think it is pointless (I have heard many people say things such as “it doesn’t matter; council has already made up its mind.”); individuals’ busy schedules, etc. It is frequently my impression that the residents of the Village of Ada feel that they don’t have a voice.
In my opinion, this is simply untrue; all 7 of us (6 councilors & the Mayor) were elected to serve Ada’s residents, not our own interests. Council always welcomes & encourages residents to attend meetings to share their opinions, or just observe, yet this rarely happens. In my experience, most people only attend meetings if there is an issue that directly affects them as an individual, and not for the betterment of the village as a whole.
Nearly every ordinance (there are exceptions) has three readings (councilors’ votes are taken at each of the three readings). This gives the public time to comment. Let’s say, for example, that there is a proposed ordinance, and you read about it in the newspaper/online/or hear it from someone (and, as always, feel free to contact any councilor to clarify any issue(s)). If you don’t like what you’ve heard/read, come to the next council meeting, where there would be a second reading of the proposed ordinance. During the public comments portion of the meeting (which would take place before the second reading), that is your opportunity to speak (ditto for the third reading).
Council has, on several occasions, engaged in very lively discussion as a result. On the third & final reading of a proposed ordinance, for example, I once changed my vote as a result of being persuaded by a different viewpoint that was voiced by a resident who had attended & spoke at the meeting. Had that particular resident not been there, and given a well thought out, compelling argument, my vote would not have changed.
To me, the most valuable meetings are not always the council meetings. I believe that the committee meetings, which are also open to the public, are where things really happen. Ada has the following committees: Streets; Safety; Personnel; Finance; Buildings & Grounds; and Utilities (I am chair of the Utilities Committee). There may, for example, be a Streets Committee meeting scheduled after the regular council meeting adjourns.
The committees meet as a whole; i.e., every councilor participates in each particular committee meeting. To continue the Streets Committee example, let’s say that a new street improvement project is being considered. Council will likely see things such as photos of the street(s) in question, discuss where the money for the project might come from (is any grant money available, for example?), etc.
Committee meetings, are, in my view, the best opportunity to learn about what may or may not happen in the future; they are invaluable to a councilor’s job. The media comes to most committee meetings, yet members of the public rarely attend them. The only occasions where I can recall an individual or a group attending committee meetings are if, once again, a project directly affects their personal interests. If anyone does decide to attend a committee meeting, however, that person or group may or may not be permitted to speak – that is solely up to the chair of that particular committee’s meeting.
I hope that this helps. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.