The El Dorado City Council is changing its regular meeting schedule from twice a month to once a month, starting in December.
Council members agreed to the change following an extensive discussion during an El Dorado Water and Public Works Board (EWPWB) meeting on Oct. 12.
They also agreed to review and approve the city's bills on a weekly basis via email, if the matter is amenable to the city's accounts payable clerk.
The council voted unanimously to hold its regular meetings at 5 p.m. on the second Thursday of the month, scrapping its longstanding schedule of 5:30 p.m. the first Thursday after the first Monday of the month and again two weeks later.
The change will go into effect in December, with the first meeting under the new schedule set for Dec. 9.
Council Member Mike Rice broached the topic as the EWPWB meeting was drawing to a close.
"I've been doing some looking and thinking and talking to a couple of people that are on boards and I'm leaning toward the idea of moving our council meeting to once a month," Rice said.
He asked his fellow council members their thoughts on the matter and initially proposed holding the council meetings "during normal business hours."
Rice suggested 10 a.m. as the starting time and laid out his reasoning.
"That way we'll have real-time ... the city's up and going. If we need information, it's a text message or a phone call away," he said. "And then also, if the meetings go longer, it's during the daytime hours where we're starting at 10 (a.m.) and we can get it done."
Rice's request for input spawned a lengthy discussion, during which council members raised various points and floated a number of suggestions of possible times and dates for council meetings.
Council Member Willie McGhee was the first to respond and he urged the council to do what "is best and most convenient for residents to be able to" attend council meetings.
"I'm not messed up about cutting the meetings back. I'm talking about the time. I'm OK with once a month," McGhee said.
"I'm just saying, we've got to remember why we're here. We've got to remember who put us in these seats. Votes put us in these seats and I think the people who voted for us should have the right to have access to a time where they can make it," he continued.
He pointed out that the council used to meet four times a month -- twice for agenda meetings and twice for regular meetings.
The council dissolved the agenda meetings -- during which city officials would set the agenda for regular meetings -- in the early 2000s.
On Oct. 12, several council members noted that the Union County Quorum Court convenes its regular meetings at 10 a.m. on the third Thursday each month.
"You go there, man, it don't hardly be nobody there, unless they're retired or in the building or in the vicinity," McGhee said.
Council Member Vance Williamson said the quorum court meetings have been well-attended during the times that he has gone.
"I was surprised that they were and I know they've operated like that for as long as I can remember," Williamson said, adding that he did have a preference for the council's new meeting time.
Council Member Dianne Hammond noted that the council can stream its meetings online, a practice the council adopted early on in the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
Hammond also reminded the group that regular council meetings air in real-time on local radio stations 94.3 FM and 1400 AM.
"That would give people more access to see what's going on during the meetings," Hammond said.
Another advantage to holding the meetings during the day, Rice said, is that if council members need additional information or clarification on an issue, they can clear up the matter quicker.
"There have been times in meetings where we've needed information and it's now 6:30, 7 in the evening, where if we are in a discussion and we need something, the city's going," Rice said
"Sometimes, it's no more than a text message or a phone call to somebody in a department and ... we get the accurate information -- which I think will speed things up to where, maybe, we won't have to table it until next time to find out that information," he continued.
Council Member Andre Rucks said he has been encouraging city employees to attend council meetings and the current starting time of 5:30 p.m. allows them to do so.
"How are we asking them to get involved if we're meeting during the time when they're at work?" Rucks asked.
With the council meeting once a month, city officials would have to table issues that cannot be resolved during the meeting until the following month, he added.
Several council members said city employees could adjust their schedules and ask their supervisors to attend council meetings during business/working hours or stay later in the day.
"I still feel like we're taking the people part out of it," Rucks said.
"I hear you, but I feel we're serving the people better by being more efficient," Rice responded.
Rice and Council Member Judy Ward noted that many senior citizens regularly attend council meetings and an earlier schedule would prevent them from having to be out after dark, particularly with Daylight Saving Time ending next month.
Rice also said that local events often coincide with city council meetings.
For instance, First Thursday -- the monthly event in which downtown merchants remain open later and host activities to draw more people downtown -- was underway during the council's last regular meeting on Oct. 7.
Mayor Veronica Smith-Creer asked the council to make sure the public is given enough notice and time to adjust to the change in the meeting schedule.
"We've also got to remember that the decisions we make will affect the people who will sit in these (council) seats in the future," added McGhee.
In a related discussion, the council agreed to review and vote on the city's invoices once a week, via email, instead of during council meetings.
The topic that was also introduced by Rice, who said he had received an email the day before pertaining to a bill the council may need to approve, via email, prior to the next regular meeting on Oct. 21.
"We can do that. Technically, we can even pay the bills, if there's a list of them. Once a week, send out the bills. Let's approve them so we can get these people paid quicker," Rice said.
"I know we can pay the bills when we meet once a month but that doesn't have to keep the train from going. They can get six, eight bills together and send them once a week," he continued. "I think it will help the vendor and take a load off the person who's writing the checks."
Smith-Creer said she favored the idea.
"As far as the checks, it's not so much the amount but it's making sure that everything is there to get it processed. Even if that were the case, if you moved the meetings to once a month, I think that would be a good process to put in place," the mayor said.
Ward agreed, telling Smith-Creer, "If the bills were approved weekly, it would help your employees not to be rushed if it were approved all at one time."
Council members asked Smith-Creer to speak to the city's accounts payable clerk to see if the new process would be manageable.
Former Mayor Frank Hash, who was in the audience, suggested that the council check with the Arkansas Municipal League on the legalities of "votes in absentia."
The AML allowed for such measures during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak and the city council has previously voted in such a manner, Rice noted.
The council's actions must be open to the public.
"They changed the rules and they're still in place. We've been approving bills the whole time during COVID by email and the auditors and nobody cared," Rice said.
Smith-Creer said she had previously spoken to AML officials about the matter and had gotten the OK.
City Clerk Heather McVay also said such votes must be a part of the public record and she would need to check with state legislative auditors to make sure email votes for the city's bills would suffice, noting, "They check to make sure the bills are voted on if they're over $2,000."
Rice amended his motion to include a proviso that the city will review and pay bills weekly by email if the matter is convenient for the accounts payable clerk.