Evening Meetings

December 26, 1996

Should the East Hampton Town Board hold evening meetings, in the hope that more people will be able to attend? If so, how often? Some of the time? On a regular schedule? Only in certain circumstances? All the time?

The Town Board had disagreed over just about all the particulars - when, which, what, and even why - but then reached a compromise last week, which has yet to be enacted.

Disagreement among board members is no great surprise; there isn't much on which this uncommonly politicized board does agree. It was misguided, though, for Supervisor Cathy Lester and Councilman Peter Hammerle, the Democrats on the board, not to acknowledge from the first that the idea, put forth by the Republican members, might be a good one. Any proposal aimed at making government more accountable and accessible is worth a second look, as all would agree, and evenings seem to be the best time for the board to reach out to the largest number of constituents.

Councilman Len Bernard originally suggested that the board's twice-a-month voting sessions, now held on Friday mornings, be moved to Friday nights. Last week's tentative compromise is to hold just one session a month at night - on Fridays.

Friday night may seem a good idea for those homeowners who spend the workweek elsewhere, but it is one of least likely nights on which to expect many people to show an interest in zoning, taxes, easements, land preservation, water mains, road improvements, and other heavy-duty matters. No, Friday nights are for unwinding - dinner out or a movie - especially during the resort season, when Saturday nights out are too crowded.

Councilman Hammerle joked about the Friday night proposal. "Let's drive to the Hamptons and go to a meeting," he said. "I can see the traffic backed up already."

Councilman Thomas Knobel and Councilwoman Nancy McCaffrey instead proposed holding some of the board's twice-a-month Tuesday work sessions at night. That doesn't seem entirely satisfactory either. These meetings can be newsworthy on occasion, but more often than not they are characterized by extended debate on bureaucratic minutiae or issues on which consensus seems impossible. Neither provides the best forums for public participation. Nor, for that matter, do the usual Friday-morning voting sessions, which are devoted largely to the rubber stamp.

The time to make itself most accessible is when the board has a final proposal ready for public hearing that is apt to be controversial. Beyond that, holding one Tuesday work session and one formal Friday session at night in the next few months would split the difference and be a good test of whether night meetings achieve their purpose.