Fewer county board meetings shouldn’t mean less access

The Marquette County Board recently decided it would cut the number of its monthly meetings in half for a three-month trial basis, beginning this month.

The idea has been a recurrent theme for the past several years for the panel, discussed generally this time of year when the board reorganizes itself. Until now, no action had been taken.

Marquette County administrator Scott Erbisch had suggested a six-month period for the new meeting schedule trial, outlining in a memo to the board some pros and cons previously identified.

Among the pros, Erbisch said the measure could reduce overtime expenses for staff; lessen commissioner travel time; possibly eliminate the need for committee of the whole sessions and reduce the meeting broadcast costs from Charter Communications.

Cons included the potential for more ad hoc or standing committee meetings with fewer board meetings; longer board meetings; longer agendas; timing problems could arise for approving bids, contracts and change orders; during non-meeting weeks, claims and accounts would need to be paid without prior board approval, and less opportunity for informed discussion.

We think reducing the meeting schedule to one committee-of-the-whole meeting and one regular meeting each month is good thinking, with some conditions. We think the public must retain its ability to have a chance to comment on issues before they are decided. The best way to do this is to keep the committee of the whole sessions for recommendations and regular meetings for final action. This gives several days for the public to learn about issues before they are voted on.

County board packets could be produced earlier in the week they are issued before meetings, another advantage to fewer meetings, also providing more time for public inspection of issues. With more time to prepare, packets might also contain more information, or at least some, on each agenda item. The board might also be able to refrain from constantly adding items to the agenda at each meeting, a practice we think does not favor the public.

With the board now reduced from nine members to six, having fewer meetings would allow more time for the elected commissioners to get out into their larger geographic districts more often to meet with constituents and hear their concerns.

Fewer board meetings would also give county staff more time to respond to board requests. The one drawback we can see with not as many meetings could be the length of those meetings possibly becoming an issue.

However, if meetings can be kept to a reasonable length, the public opportunities to comment on issues preserved and longer time to review improved packet materials afforded, we think this is a great idea and a long time coming.