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Supervisors: It’s a Matter of Time

In 1995, all eyes in Orange County were on the Board of Supervisors. Angry and frustrated by the bankruptcy, crowds turned out at meetings to voice their displeasure. The institution of night sessions was an attempt to help accommodate the desire of the working public to witness their government in action.

As it has turned out, the innovation hasn’t proven to be a sustained or reliable drawing card. By the spring of 1998, the audience on many nights is made up of people in county government who have to be there anyway.

In order to make the night meetings more attractive, the board last week decided to move up the starting time one hour to 6 p.m. This is for people who might want to come directly from work. It also aims to have meetings end earlier to get people home earlier.

There is some skepticism that even this change will make much of a difference. Anti-tax activist Bruce Whitaker, who was a vocal critic of the county during the bankruptcy period, says the county deliberately avoids putting controversial items on the night agenda, and that when it must, items get pushed into the night, only to end up being postponed.

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Meanwhile, Supervisors Tom Wilson and Todd Spitzer have proposed a pilot program to videotape meetings that they hoped cable-TV companies would air. The other three supervisors have balked, saying that a “circus atmosphere” would prevail.

What to make of all this?

Patricia Harrigan, a League of Women Voters representative, notes the obvious. Not all that the supervisors deal with is dramatic and attention-grabbing, the way, say, the bankruptcy or the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station might be. But even so, there is good reason for the board to continue experimentation in the hope of reaching broader groups of constituencies.

If the 6 p.m. start makes it more attractive to a few residents and gets everybody home earlier, it is worth trying. Televised sessions of county government meetings have become commonplace in such counties as Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. Most cities and school districts already are televising their meetings. It’s hard to see how meetings on TV would give way to grandstanding.

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Officials can recognize the effort of residents to come out by ensuring that high-interest items are scheduled earlier. Citizens will be put off if they have to wait through hours of routine discussion only to get to the heart of the matter late in the evening. Little things, such as providing parking vouchers, can foster public attendance.

Orange County is a sprawling region, where the county government needs to reach out to a dispersed population. In the end, it is the people’s government. In times of great passion or sustained yawning, the government should be accessible and open to those it serves--people who need a good night’s sleep.


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