Citizens wish Council meetings happened when they could attend
At the Southwest Community Center, a man in a blue janitor shirt sweeps the floors and takes
down tables. In his down time, James Cotton talks to kids who run through the halls. He gives them advice, teaches them manners and aims to makes them feel their voices are heard.
But while Cotton gives voice to the youth, his voice remains unheard. Cotton says his long hours, sometimes 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., prevent him from attending Common Council meetings to advocate for the issues that are important to him.
As the council moves to deliberate new legislation, more people want to provide their input on decisions local officials make.
The accessibility of meetings has long been an issue for working people and students who are often in class when council meetings are held, at noon or 1 p.m. on a Monday or Wednesday.
Cotton said his involvement in local politics comes down to a simple choice — whether or not he wants to pay his bills.
“You have to weigh your options, like will my voice be heard if I go and lose money from work, or should I just go to work and just not be heard at all and keep living my life,” Cotton said.
Councilor Susan Boyle says the council does not have a choice but to host meetings during normal work hours so heads of city departments can attend.
John Akins, who works with Syracuse Healthy Start, a program that aims to provide fathers with the tools they need to be effective parents, has a flexible schedule that allots him the time to attend council meetings.
“You can’t convince me that these politicians and these big wigs who are attending these meetings can’t get out of their 9-to-5 schedule and go to a meeting,” Akins said. “They choose not to.”
But Boyle said councilors must get community input in other ways, such as by attending neighborhood watch group gatherings. Boyle said she attends about 10 to 15 evening meetings a month.
“[We] try to make sure we have all of the input from the people as far as how they want us to represent them,” Boyle said, “and then when we go to study sessions, we bring that information with us to the departments and to the general conducting of business within City Hall.”
The council also periodically calls special public meetings for items of great public interest, Boyle said.
The Common Council is currently working to stream meetings live, Boyle said.
The council’s IT department is currently bidding quotes on networking services that would establish a connection to WCNY, according to Stan Ayres, a specialist at the IT department.
Sharon Owens, the executive director of the Southwest Community Center, has long been a proponent of getting council meetings streamed.
“It’s another step moving in the direction for accessibility because right now you don’t have anything. And here we have Time Warner and WCNY and Newhouse in this community, it’s inexcusable that we don’t already have that mechanism available in our chambers,” Owens said.
But to Akins and Cotton, streaming is not enough because it does not allow for active participation at a meeting.
“The reality is you can’t please all the people, all the time,” Akins said, “but I think that what really should happen is before they decide what times and what days these Common Council meetings are, they should get a consensus from the public as to what the public feels is an appropriate time.”
— Article and photo by Jasmine Gomez, Staff reporter