County Council deadlocks on moving to 6:30 p.m. starting time for meetings

Trakas, Erby, Gray opposed to meeting time of 6:30 p.m.

Rochelle Walton Gray

Rochelle Walton Gray

By Gloria Lloyd

The County Council could not come to an agreement last week to shift its meeting start times later, something south county residents have requested for years.

The council meets at 6 p.m. Tuesdays at the Administration Building in Clayton.

Until 2001, the council historically met at 3 p.m. on Thursdays. But council Republicans, led by former 6th District Councilman John Campisi, R-south county, fought to move the meetings to nights over protests from Democrats who argued that more people would not attend night meetings. In early 2001, the council began meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.

The meeting time later was changed to 6 p.m.

Last week, County Council members deadlocked on a bill proposed by 7th District Councilman Mark Harder, R-Ballwin, to move the meeting start time to 6:30 p.m. from 6 p.m.

Voting for the change were Harder, 4th District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Huntleigh, and 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights.

Voting against the change were 6th District Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and 4th District Councilwoman Rochelle Walton Gray, D-Black Jack. Council Chairman Sam Page, D-Creve Coeur, was absent.

Harder’s proposal died because of the 3-3 tie, which cannot be broken without bringing the issue back for another vote.

For years, Gravois Township Republican Committeewoman Jennifer Bird and other allies of Trakas, including frequent county candidate Tony Pousosa and resident Lisa Pannett, have contended that council meetings should start at 7 p.m.

As far back as 2013, Bird told the council that it was too difficult for residents from south county, especially those with jobs, to get to Clayton by 6 p.m. to speak to the council.

“The time that you have the meetings — I think it’s extremely frustrating, and I have to wonder if it’s by design,” she said in January 2014. “It’s difficult enough to get here before 6 so that a person can sign in to have permission to speak to you. It certainly seems like a deliberate attempt to keep people from expressing our views.”

Trakas did not respond to a request for comment before the Call’s press time. In a candidate questionnaire during his campaign for office, he supported a change to a later time.

“… The start time should be changed to 7 p.m,” Trakas wrote. “This change will foster greater attendance and engagement by county residents at council meetings.”

The council requirement that speakers fight traffic, get through security and get up to the council chambers by 5:55 p.m. to sign up is why Harder proposed the change, which is a compromise from 7 p.m.

“Over the last two-and-a-half years that I’ve been on the council, we’ve had numerous people come to the meetings saying this is a very inconvenient time between getting home from work and feeding their kids and getting up here, and if you want to speak you’ve got to get there at 5:45 (p.m.),” Harder said.

County Council members discussed several reforms to the way it operates after Trakas and Gray first took office in January, including Trakas’ proposal to increase public-forum speaking times to five minutes from three minutes.

Harder said he believed the later meeting time had general support from other council members.

The residents who would benefit most from the change are those in unincorporated areas, primarily south county, Harder noted.

For residents with no cities or mayors, the County Council operates as their local government.

“If most people need to come and talk about trash pickups or potholes or you name it, in the municipalities their meetings are usually 7 or 7:30,” Harder said. “But if you live in south county and you want to talk about a new business on Lemay Ferry or whatever it may be, you’ve got to really hustle to get there by 6 o’clock to participate in democracy.”

Harder said of Trakas, “This should have been an easy vote for him, and instead he voted against it.”

Other council members and legislative assistants, however, said they want to get home earlier. The 6 p.m. starting time for meetings works better for parents with young families, who can get home to put their children to bed, Erby said.

“I think 6 o’clock is fine,” Erby said. “I just think that 6 o’clock gives people time, we go to meetings all the time that start at 6 o’clock … especially for the wintertime when the time changes and getting home before it’s too late for citizens, I think it’s fine.”

County Policy Director Jeff Wagener, D-Oakville, was elected in November 1996 as the 6th District representative on the County Council.

At his first meeting as councilman in 1997, Wagener voted against moving meetings to night from 3 p.m.

“When you talk about this issue, the people in south county just are not concerned about night meetings,” Wagener said at the time.

He also called night meetings a “non-issue” and said that south county residents “don’t care when we meet.”

After Campisi defeated Wagener in November 2000 and was seated in January 2001, the council voted to change its meeting time to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.