Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series on the accessibility of local government meetings. On Wednesday, the Aiken Standard looks at North Augusta City Council.
City Council meeting length since January (in minutes)Jan. 14 163Jan. 28 156Feb. 11 34Feb. 25 147Mar. 11 105Mar. 25 176Apr. 8 279Apr. 22 233
Aiken City Council members are always talking about transparency and constantly looking for ways to become more accessible to residents than they already are.
Council wants to hear from residents before making decisions that will impact the City and even though it can make for a long meeting, it will wait to hear from each person who wants to speak.
Mayor Fred Cavanaugh said that he never wants any resident to leave a meeting feeling like they weren't given the opportunity to share their concerns with Council.
“We work for our citizens, and we want them to speak because we learn when people speak or at least we have the opportunity to learn,” Cavanaugh said.
The City website is also always undergoing improvements and offers a wide range of information for anybody to get their hands on from the budget to the meeting minutes.
“It's not just important to let every resident speak but it's also so important for us to be transparent in what we do,” Cavanaugh said.
When are meetings held?
The regularly scheduled meetings begin at 7 p.m. in Council Chambers.
Those Council meetings are held every second and fourth Monday except in July, August and December.
During those three months, it typically only meets once on the second Monday.
All of these meetings and work sessions are open to the public.
At the end of some meetings, Council may adjourn to executive session, which is usually cited on the agenda. That portion of the meeting is not open to the public. Council may be discussing legal, contractual or personnel matters behind those closed doors.
Special meetings may also be held at the request of the mayor or the majority of the Council members. If a special meeting is scheduled, all Council members and the news media must be alerted immediately by the City manager, according to City code.
The agenda is usually released on Thursday afternoon before the Monday meeting and is posted on the City of Aiken website. The agenda packet is also published online and includes information and other documents related to the issues that will be discussed and voted on during that meeting.
The meetings are also publicized through the City's cable Channel 4.
City Manager Richard Pearce said if anyone has an item that they would like to have added to the agenda, they're asked to make a request on the Monday before the meeting.
Speaking before Council
City Council is pretty avid about public participation and is willing to listen to each concerned resident.
Residents are allowed to speak on any item on the agenda. When the Council gets to an item, the City Manager introduces it with a brief description of the issue. Anyone who is involved with that item, such as a business owner who is requesting new construction in the city limits, is asked to speak if they wish to do so.
Then, the public is invited to speak for or against that item.
Each person who speaks is asked to address Council, and they must speak at the podium into a microphone which is recorded for City records.
They're asked to give their name and address before offering their remarks.
On some of the items, particularly ordinances, which are laws that govern actions within the City limits, there are two readings and two separate votes.
On the agenda, it will read “public hearing” with the second reading, but residents are invited to speak during both readings.
Residents are asked to try to hold their remarks to five minutes.
“Council has provided leeway depending on the nature of the topic,” Pearce said.
The City encourages residents to sign up in advance to speak but it's not required.
The City of Aiken website, www.cityofaikensc.gov, was revamped just last year by the City's Website Administrator Wes Funderberg.
The website is widely used by the public. Last fiscal year, there was an average of 1,353 visits to the City's website daily with approximately 3.5 million views during that time.
The website includes City Council agendas and meeting minutes dating back to 1955. The earliest minutes are from a special meeting in 1940 regarding the creation of a Housing Authority for the City of Aiken.
Budgets from several decades are available on the website and is up-to-date with the current budget. The City's comprehensive annual financial report that is put together at the end of each fiscal year is also available for the public to view.
The website also includes at least two years of audio minutes. Councilman Dick Dewar recently asked if there was a way to retain all of the audio minutes indefinitely. Pearce said they are currently looking into the cost and ways to accomplish that goal.
Funderberg said he's always looking for ways to improve the website and is open for suggestions.
“Constant feedback is always a plus because users change and how they search for information changes,” Funderberg said.
That feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.