Participation at city council meetings is a barometer of civic health. More debate, more voices breathe life into a broader public discourse. The key is to create a forum that encourages the greatest involvement by the greatest number.
Today, the Everett City Council will vote on an ordinance to change its meeting times to all-evening. It’s a prudent step, consistent with nearly every incorporated city in Snohomish County as well as Everett’s peer cities such as Tacoma, Vancouver and Spokane. Only Seattle, with a full-time council, holds daytime meetings.
The compromise experiment of a 12:30 meeting on the fourth Wednesday of every month seemed to make sense: How can many elderly or those on swing shift testify at night? The 2011 decision was freighted with a couple unintended consequences, however: Fewer participants and a thin agenda. Day meetings are de facto non-policy heavy. Because matters of citizen interest are reserved for 6:30 meetings, the attendee drain becomes self-fulfilling, as participation tracks with the topic.
Day meetings also burden those council members with 9-5 jobs, unable to tear away, especially if they work out of town. The compromise time of 12:30 helps a bit, but still curtails participation.
The broader challenge is to stimulate a cross-section of Everett-ites from diverse social and income levels to run for council. For a nurse or a school teacher, day meetings are another institutional barrier from serving.
For generations now, only the retired, the wealthy or the self-employed had the time or resources to dedicate to public life. A recent Seattle Times article documents the trend when it comes to the Legislature: The average legislator is older and more well-to-do relative to his (and it’s more “his” than “her”) constituency. There are exceptions, and it begs the question, why run for office if you’re unwilling to carve time from work for the greater good?
The open secret with the city council, as with councils throughout Western Washington, is the low participation irrespective of the meeting time. To goose attendance is to goose civic health, so the question becomes how to make it so.
The onus is on the public as a whole as well as the council. If the council opts for evening-only meetings — something we encourage and that dovetails with best practices of similar-sized cities — council members might consider scheduling office hours for public drop-ins a couple times a month. And the public needs to uphold its part of the social contract by suiting up and showing up.
Everett is a vital city that deserves an equally vital civic dialogue.