UPDATED (1/18): This story was edited to add Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe’s quote about the process for text changes

For more than a decade, Winston-Salem City Council meetings have taken place in the evenings, at 7 p.m.

On Tuesday, council members will vote on whether to move the start time up an hour, to 6 p.m. If the resolution passes, the committee meeting times will also be rescheduled to be held at earlier times in the afternoon.

Concerned activists in the city are speaking out due to the burden they say this time change will put on citizens. 

Originally, these items were placed on the zoning agenda during a Dec. 5 city council meeting. When community activist and frequent candidate for local office Carolyn Highsmith noticed the proposed changes on the agenda, she spoke out. Since it would have been a change to the city ordinance, Highsmith claims that the city should have gone through a more thorough process.

“It’s a change to a city ordinance; it’s called a text amendment,” said Highsmith, who is a representative for an organization called the Coalition for Accountability and Transparency of Winston-Salem. “And when you have a text amendment it has to go through the appropriate city council committee, and then they’re supposed to hold a public hearing. And then the whole council discusses it.”

According to Article II, Sec. 2-33 of the city’s ordinances, “city council shall hold a regular meeting on the first and third Mondays of each month in the council chambers of the city hall at 7:00 p.m.”

According to Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe, it is “the normal practice” for items to “come through a committee and then go before council, but they don’t always do that.” However, he said, there is usually a discussion before text changes are made.

Carolyn Highsmith

The Public Works and the Public Safety committees, which currently meet at 6 p.m., would be moved to 2 p.m. if the resolution passes, while the Community Development/Housing/General Government and Finance committees would be moved from 4:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

On Dec. 4, Highsmith said she and her group sent an email to city council stating their concerns and requesting that council members table the agenda item.

The next day, the item was withdrawn during the council meeting, with Mayor Allen Joines stating that a request had been made to refer the item to the Community Development/Housing/General Government Committee meeting on Dec. 13, where the issue was tabled once again, this time for almost a month while city staff spent time collecting public input concerning the proposed schedule changes.

When the committee met again on Jan. 10, the item was recommended to the city council for approval by committee members Mayor Pro Tem Denise D. Adams, East Ward representative Annette Scippio, Southwest Ward representative Kevin Mundy, and West Ward representative Robert C. Clark. The resolution is listed on the consent agenda for the city council meeting on Tuesday. If passed, it would go into effect on Feb. 1.

City aims to change hours to keep staff

Staff retention has been cited as the main reason for the time change, noting that city staff don’t want to work late hours during the week and that city council meetings in nearby cities like Greensboro and High Point are scheduled earlier in the evening. 

Critics like Highsmith feel that following the lead of neighboring cities isn’t a good enough reason for the change. 

“That’s not open government, that’s not transparency,” she said.

During the Jan. 10 meeting, City Manager Lee Garrity said that he was the one that brought this recommendation to the council.

“I just wanted to clarify that this recommendation that came from myself and Mr. Rowe,” Garrity said. “Came because of the competitive world we’re in for senior talent.” 

Garrity mentioned two instances in which senior staff indicated that they were more inclined to serve other communities where they would not have to spend so much time working at night.

“My intent with this recommendation was actually to help the citizens and to help all of you to make sure we can retain and recruit the top staff to try to deliver the best services for citizens,” he said.

“We are supposed to be good stewards over managing the money that the city government has to manage and operate with,” Northeast Ward representative Barbara Hanes-Burke said during the meeting. “And if we continue to have the high rate of personnel turnover, it is costing us every time we have to train a new employee.” 

Critics call the potential change ‘anti-democratic’

Comments made by members of the public included those of Phillip Carter, another member of the Coalition for Accountability and Transparency of Winston-Salem, who said, “If we want transparent governance, we should do everything we can to ensure that the citizenry can be an inclusive and participatory part of the decision making process of their very own governance.”

During the Jan. 10 meeting South Ward representative John Larson said he thinks the committee meetings being moved is “particularly problematic as nobody will attend.” 

“There are so many committee meetings that occur where things go on the consent agenda and the public never really even knows about them unless they happen to be following an item very closely or the newspaper picks it up,” Larson said.

During the meeting Assistant City Manager Ben Rowe presented citizen survey results conducted by city staff members, revealing that 57 percent of those polled preferred the 7 p.m. city council meeting time to stay the same while 40 percent favored an earlier time in the evening. Three percent had no preference. 

When pollsters asked citizens to choose between a 5:30, 6, or 6:30 p.m. start time, 55 percent leaned toward the last option. Regarding committee meeting times, 68 percent preferred the current schedule.

Council member Annette Scippio, representative for the East Ward, reminded citizens that they could email city council members with their concerns and watch the meetings virtually if they couldn’t attend in person.

“Our citizens have all the technology at hand and they must be encouraged to use that,” she said. “Almost everyone has a cellphone. The meetings are live, they are recorded.” 

Still, council member Larson said he doesn’t feel that virtual interaction is “the same as eyeballing constituents in the chamber room.” 

Highsmith agreed.

“When you start changing times, especially where they know that citizens cannot get out and participate, it’s anti-democratic,” she said.

Tuesday’s city council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Find the agenda and watch online here.

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