By Scott Tibbs, August 16, 2012
The Herald-Times published a staff editorial following up on my guest column calling for the county commissioners to have meeting times that allow most members of the public to attend. I'm glad my guest editorial has prompted this much discussion of the meeting times and making sure the public can attend, but the H-T editorial has some major problems.
First of all, moving the meetings to 7:30 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. does absolutely nothing to fix the problem. Someone who has to be at work at 8:00 will be able to stay for all of fifteen minutes, if they can even stay that long or attend at all. An afternoon meeting is still in the middle of the work day and makes it difficult for most working people to attend the meetings.
The big problem was a glaring factual error in the editorial, that could have been easily fixed with less than fifteen minutes of work. That glaring factual error is the claim that department heads who attend commissioner meetings would need to be paid overtime or bank compensatory time.
This is simply not true.
County department heads, chief deputies and some other selected employees are classified as "exempt" employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), so they are not eligible for overtime at all. Exempt employees could literally work 50 hours and not see a penny of extra compensation or time off. (Keep in mind that most county employees work 35 hours per week.) A number of department heads are elected officials, so they do not get overtime or compensatory time either. The solution, then, is obvious: To the greatest extent possible, have exempt employees be the ones who are attending the evening commissioners' meetings.
In the case of non-exempt employees who need to attend a meeting, there is no reason that there would be an extra financial burden on county government because employees can bank compensatory time to take at a later date. Another possibility is for non-exempt employees to use flex time within the pay period so that no compensatory time is carried over into the future.
There is a legitimate concern about needing to move meetings of other county government bodies to accommodate holding commissioners meetings in the evening, but the important thing to consider here is that the county commissioners are county government's legislative body. When smoking bans, zoning ordinances and the like are passed, they are passed by the county commissioners. Of all of the meetings that need to be accessible to the public, the county's legislative and budgetary bodies should take precedence over other county boards and commissions.
The county commissioners meetings are technically are open to the public, but that is meaningless if the public cannot attend 99% of the meetings because they are in the middle of the work day. Shutting out the public by holding the meetings when they know the public cannot attend is just plain wrong. As I have pointed out repeatedly, the county council and city council meet in the evenings (5:30 and 7:30) so there's no legitimate reason the commissioners can't do the same. It is certainly more convenient for the commissioners and county employees as it is now, but county government is there to serve the taxpayers - not the other way around.
Accessibility of government meetings is something I have been complaining about for seven years now, and it is great to see the issue of open meetings finally getting some attention in the local media, and it is nice to see local elected officials addressing the problem. Now the question is whether the people elected in November will have the will to fix the problem. The voters deserve to know where the candidates stand.