Spokane County commissioners gave themselves the option this week to move public hearings they believe won’t be well-attended to afternoons.
A revision to county laws approved unanimously by the three Republican commissioners allows input on some topics to occur at sessions held at 2 p.m., when commissioners approve measures considered routine. This includes signing off on payroll, accepting grants and buying equipment. Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said the change promotes “leaner” government by trimming costs and encouraging efficiency.
“We have to pay the tech guy to come in, for his time, we have to pay staff because they’re staying longer,” O’Quinn said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Controversial topics, including changes to land use categories, occur at meetings held at 5:30 p.m. O’Quinn said other clerical matters requiring a public hearing under law also are scheduled for the evening, often resulting in an empty hearing room.
“Literally, we’ll have six items on the agenda. It takes us 30 minutes to get through it, and no one shows up,” O’Quinn said.
The change allows commissioners to determine when it’s “appropriate” for a topic to be moved to the 2 p.m. agenda, according to the new language in county codes, and still requires notice to be published in the newspaper of record and posted outside the Commissioners Hearing Room in the county’s Public Works Building.
While current commissioners say the revision will promote efficiency and cut costs, past members worry the change could limit public participation.
John Roskelley, a former Democratic county commissioner, said he was surprised the current commission chose to give themselves the ability to move some public hearings.
“It wasn’t an issue when I was on the commission, because public hearings needed to be held at 5, when people got off work,” Roskelley, who served from 1995 to 2004, said.
Bonnie Mager, the most recent Democratic commissioner, who was defeated by Al French in her 2010 bid to retain her seat, said she empathized with the long days officials have to put in on hearing days, what she called “the terrible Tuesdays.” But, she said, elected officials have a responsibility to grant the public as many opportunities to participate as possible.
“I do think there’s a danger in setting a precedent, by only scheduling meetings at your own convenience,” Mager said.
But Kate McCaslin, a Republican who served on the commission from 1997 to 2005, said commissioners need to think of county residents first, if and when they move hearings.
“As long as they’re prioritizing the convenience to the citizens, and not the bureaucracy, then I don’t think there’s an issue with it,” McCaslin said.
French said the move would free up more time at evening hearings for the public to weigh in on controversial topics.
“Doing the mundane business just takes time away from the public to comment on things they’re passionate about,” he said.
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