Editor's note: This is the third in a four-part series on the accessibility of local government meetings. On Thursday, the Aiken Standard looks at Aiken County School Board.
Getting access to North Augusta City Council members may not provide much of a challenge, according to Council members. A bigger task, according to some observers, is getting people to attend the meetings.
Council meetings often have two or less people from the general public, aside from actual Council members, a reporter or two and about a half-dozen employees of the municipal government.
The Council is currently comprised of newcomers Fletcher Dickert and David McGhee, veterans Pat Carpenter, Carolyn Baggott, Jimmy Adams and Ken McDowell, along with Mayor Lark Jones. Meetings are usually held on the first and third Mondays of the month at 7 p.m. on the third floor of the municipal building.
Overhaul on the way
Chuck Usry, the municipal government's manager of informational technology, noted that a major change is on the horizon for the municipal website, www.northaugusta.net.
“We're doing a top-to-bottom overhaul on it,” Usry said. “We're going to have a citizens-request module. It's going to be a lot more user-friendly than our current system.”
He cited the example of someone looking to summon a crew to get rid of a pothole, and pointed out that the new system will be able to determine the appropriate format for a particular user, so someone using a smartphone, for example, would receive information differently from someone using a regular computer.
“We had a lot of citizens that struggled with the present layout of it, and that drove us to go and look at it a lot harder and see areas where we could improve, and we figured a top-to-bottom overhaul was just the best solution for the citizens,” Usry said.
McDowell said he has had plenty of contact with people who said they initially reached out by way of the municipal website, where they found an email address for him. Referring to ease of access, the Councilman said, “I don't know that there's an issue at all.”
Until recently, the various Council members' phone numbers had also been listed on the municipal site. They have been removed, but all seven members still have an email address shown. Most also have a home number listed in the Aiken- and Augusta-area phone books, in the North Augusta section.
Preparing for Council meetings
Meeting agendas start taking shape on the Wednesday before a meeting. City staff members submit their items to the clerk by noon on Wednesday, and the agenda is posted no later than 4 p.m. on the Friday before the meeting. Upon being finalized, it is posted immediately. The most recent agenda was posted on May 3, and the most recent meeting minutes were posted on April 19 (after they had Council's approval, as policy dictates).
Yearly budgets are also posted on the website. The 2013 budget has been there since Jan. 3. Prior to then, the proposed budget was available on the website and also in the City clerk's office.
The time limit for anyone looking to address Council at a meeting is five minutes, although the limit is sometimes ignored by agreement of the speaker and listeners. Remarks are to be addressed to Council as a body and not to a specific member.
Anyone looking to be put on the agenda can arrange it by calling Donna Young, the City clerk, at 803-441-4202. Individuals, however, do not have to be on the agenda in order to speak during a meeting.
McDowell noted, “Actually, for each subject, before Council votes, we ask for citizen input.”
Meetings so far this year have varied in length from about 30 minutes to about 2.5 hours. Executive (closed-door) sessions, covering topics in such areas as litigation, personnel and contracts, are sometimes held before a meeting, and, if more time is needed, can resume after a meeting, as well.
A Saturday fact-finding trip to Greenville lasted about 10 hours, from departure to return, but was not considered a meeting (no action or votes were taken). Some Council members traveled with their spouses. Some Aiken County Council members also made the trip, which focused largely on the Greenville Drive baseball team's park and how it might provide lessons for a proposal to build a similar facility along North Augusta's riverfront.