When Wilson Borough Council appointed Edwinna Howey to a vacant council seat last week without advertising its availability, Council President Leonard Feinberg defended the move by saying that Howey was the best person for the position. He also justified the decision by saying it saved the borough the cost of advertising for potential candidates.
Howey found out about the vacancy – created by Councilman David Schug’s resignation -- because she hangs around the borough office from time to time, heard about the vacancy and applied.
Faster than you can say “Is anyone else interested,” the proposal to appoint Howey was on the council agenda just a few days after Schug had submitted his letter of resignation and approved 4-1.
No one argues about Howey’s qualifications. As a planning commission member, chair of a Neighborhood Watch group and frequent attendee at council meetings, she obviously has strong interest in borough business. With Howey’s superb credentials, Feinberg is puzzled by the public relations fallout of council’s actions. I’m puzzled that Feinberg is puzzled.
What so many officials fail to grasp is the power of perception. In this case, the public perception is that instead of going through an inclusionary process that gave anyone in the affected ward an opportunity to be considered for the vacancy, council winds up giving the impression that it ramrodded the process and tilted it to give Howey the seat.
Despite her qualifications, Howey will forever be remembered by the questionable process, not her achievements. To prevent this from happening, council needs to make this right -- rescind the decision, put out a call for candidates, review applications, then come to a decision. (By the way, the news media will happily give this information to the Wilson public free of charge because it’s such an interesting news story.)
It’s likely Howey could emerge from this process as the preferred candidate, but then it won’t seem as if it were some kind of a back-room deal.
Too often, officials make decisions or conduct business in a way that seems to thumb their nose at the public. In 50 years of covering municipal meetings, I have pretty much seen it all, and it’s astounding how officials come off as having little or no regard for the public they profess to serve.
To make the public feel more welcome at meetings and more involved in the municipality’s business, here are some suggestions:
- Hold meetings at a convenient time for the public, not the officials. At one point, North Whitehall Township held meetings in the late afternoon when many residents were still at work or just getting home.
- Advertise meetings with date, time, place and several of the key agenda items.
- Designate one of the members of the municipal body as “greeter” and welcome residents when they come to a meeting. Help them with any questions, especially newcomers. Having light refreshments is a nice touch, too.
- Give each resident and visitor an agenda that has explanatory content about items to be discussed. An item that says “Consideration of Borough Ordinance 11-03” means nothing to the lay visitor. The item should explain what this ordinance would do if approved.
- Have placards with the names of officials in front of their seats.
- The mayor or whoever conducts the meeting should greet those in attendance at the start of the meeting and explain ground rules.
- All officials should face the audience and speak loudly and distinctly. If microphones are required, they should be in good working order.
- When each agenda item is read, there should be background and context given to help those unfamiliar with the issue understand what might have gone on in previous discussions of the same subject.
- Residents should have a period of time at the beginning of the meeting to express their concerns or ask questions. Too many municipal groups hold these sessions at the end of the meeting, possibly to discourage public input.
- Officials should make themselves available after the meeting to mingle with residents, thank them for their attendance, invite them to return, answer questions and interact with them. Notices of subsequent meetings should be sent to any resident requesting them.