January 9, 2013

Editorial: City changes bear watching


---- — The Plattsburgh Common Council is making some changes that could enhance discussion or curtail it, depending on how the new system is actually handled. We will be watching closely for any sign that public input is being restricted.

The big change is that the Common Council, which has met once a week for decades, will switch to meeting every other week.

If you have attended a regular council meeting, you know that discussion among councilors at the actual formal meeting is limited. Most of the talking takes place at the “work session” beforehand.

Even though both meetings are open to the public, we have never liked the words “work session” for any governmental body. They carry a connotation of not being open, of being just for members to work out details — and that turns away citizens, whether intentional or not.

If a public body has a quorum of members, it is holding a public meeting, and that is the law. You can call it a “work session,” but it is a meeting, and that is the term we prefer.

The city will switch to holding its full meeting one week and then a committee meeting the following week, with certain councilors in attendance. The committee meetings, to be held with department heads, will be open to the public and, we hope, held in Council Chambers so there is room for anyone who wants to attend.

We expect the city will continue to notify the media of all meetings involving councilors, as it has been doing, and we will list them in our Of Interest section.

We think it is a sound decision to set up this new meeting schedule. The public may actually hear more of the discussion that leads to councilor decisions — if anyone takes the initiative to attend. The Press-Republican will staff the meetings as often as possible, so we can share with readers what takes place.

The other major change is that the city has eliminated the second public-comment period at its regular meetings. That idea doesn’t sit as well with us — or with some councilors, as it took a tie-breaker vote by Mayor Donald Kasprzak to drop the second comment time.

We are never in favor of reducing comment sessions; it is the best opportunity for citizens to bring issues to a board’s attention in a public manner. Shared discussion of concerns is important because more than a select few can weigh in and because the public can be made aware of the brewing issues.

Ward 4 Councilor James Calnon said the second comment session is sometimes abused. “People have said things that are just not true, and it’s frightening,” he said. Frankly, we think it is frightening that any reduction in public-comment time was even considered, no matter what the speakers are saying.

And since the council will meet every other week now, the opportunity for public comment is further reduced.

The only city in the North Country should be a role model for government behavior. The city has embraced openness for years; this is no time for a step back.