From time to time, public officials have to ask themselves who they serve.
Are they obligated to serve themselves, or the people they represent?
If Schenectady City Council members answer that question the right way, then they’ll give up this quest to move the start time of in-person public meetings to 5:30 p.m. and go back to starting council meetings later in the evening.
Of course, holding meetings earlier might benefit council members and government staff, especially those that have no major work or family commitments at that hour. Council meetings that start at 7 p.m. can last well into the night. Who wouldn’t want to get home earlier if they could?
But how about the people they serve?
For the past year or so, government bodies have been forced to hold their meetings remotely because the covid crisis prevented public gatherings.
For everyone’s convenience, the council moved the start of its virtual meetings from the traditional in-person start time of 7 p.m. to an earlier 5:30 pm. start.
A new 5:30 p.m. start time was not terribly inconvenient for citizens during covid because all they had to do to view or participate in the meetings was turn on their computers or TV sets.
They didn’t have to get dressed, drive to City Hall, park and make their way into the meeting room, as they do with in-person meetings.
Since a lot of people were working from home during the crisis, or not working at all, the starting time of the council meeting didn’t have to account for the time people spent at their workplaces, the time they spent picking up kids at daycare or school, or the time they spent commuting home from work.
The earlier time also didn’t have to accommodate business owners and managers who might do most of their work during, you know, regular business hours.
During the economic shutdown, people also were more flexible with their free time. They could work, take a break to watch or join a government meeting, then return to their job or household responsibilities.
But now that the crisis seems to be abating, at least for now, it’s possible to return to meetings with the council and the public in the same room.
And those factors that compel most government boards to set their meetings later in the evening — such as 6:30 or 7 or even 8 p.m. — come back into play.
Can a citizen who works all day, comes home, eats dinner and helps the kids with the homework then make it to a meeting at City Hall that starts at 5:30 p.m.?
Certainly, the 5:30 start time would still be convenient for people who are retired or who work non-traditional hours.
But access to government meetings shouldn’t be limited to those narrow constituencies.
And it shouldn’t be OK to justify an earlier meeting time on the basis that at least citizens could attend some part of it.
The council should consider what starting time would make their meetings most accessible and convenient to the largest number of citizens, and go with that.