It all started with the talk of meeting times.
With the next decade looming large, the final meeting of the Indian Head Town Council for the year on Monday night appropriately featured discussion focused on how the town can better itself and also do right by its residents. At the November meeting, Mayor Brandon Paulin introduced the topic of a potential time change for the council’s monthly business meeting.
Discussion to that end continued at December’s meeting, this time in more depth.
In November, Paulin said the council was considering changing the standing meeting time to 4 p.m. in an attempt to spur more participation in town affairs from community members. That proposed new time was just that, Paulin explained: a proposal. On Monday night, Paulin shared that they’d received some written commentary on the subject, and opened the floor for discussion.
Among the citizens who took the floor to share their thoughts was former Mayor Dennis Scheessele. He’d worked in Washington, D.C. for many years, Scheessele said, as many of the town’s residents do. That commute, he noted, can be notoriously long and stressful, and an earlier start time would potentially preclude about half the town from participating in its meetings. Scheessele argued to keep things the way they are, with the meeting maybe beginning at 7 p.m. at the absolute earliest.
“If you work in town, you can’t get here before 6 p.m.,” Scheessele said. “At least, I couldn’t. Sometimes it was almost 7 p.m. before I got home. So I think 4 o’clock is out of reason, 5 o’clock is out of reason and 6 o’clock is kind of stretching it. You’re forcing someone to race down the road to get here on time every month. I think 7 o’clock would be a better time. I liked 7:30 when I was working because it gave me a chance to go home and have dinner before the meeting.”
Councilman Curtis Smith asked for a show of hands as to how many people present at the meeting work in D.C.: A bit more than a quarter of the 15 or so hands in the room went up.
Warren Bowie, another former Indian Head mayor, questioned the rationale for the time change.
“How are you going to get there at 5 o’clock?” Bowie posed to Smith, who is one of the town’s commuters for work.
“A plane, time travel, I don’t know,” Smith joked, before returning to the issue at hand. “... But over the past almost five years, it seems participation has dwindled. We can’t keep doing the same thing and hoping for different results. I’m open for any time that can possibly be a catalyst to get more individuals to this meeting, to understand the ramifications of their absence. We have what, maybe 16 people here tonight? This is a full house. We’re at capacity.”
“So that’s the rationale? Because you can’t keep doing the same thing?” Bowie asked.
“Because we don’t have representation of the nearly 4,000 people that live in town that aren’t attending the meeting,” Smith replied.
Smith went on to note that as the town tries to continue to attract new business, he’s noticed that many business people can’t attend the monthly business meeting due to time constraints, but can generally more easily attend their monthly work sessions, held at 3:30 p.m. the fourth Wednesday of each month.
Town resident Vivian Elder countered that the earlier business meeting time would likely make it more difficult for other residents, including herself, to be able to participate as their work schedules would make it prohibitive, as it is for the existing work session time.
“By the time we find out about it here, it’s a done deal. We don’t get a say,” Elder said of the work sessions. “The minutes aren’t posted until after the fact.”
At its monthly business meetings, the council generally usually votes to approve the minutes for both the last business session and most recent work session. The minutes are then posted afterward. Work sessions are not recorded on camera, as business meetings are, which Smith said is a “fiscal decision.”
“But where’s the transparency?” Elder asked.
Bowie suggested more people may come to the council meetings if they conduct less business during their work sessions.
“You conduct all your business in the work session and the public has no idea what the town’s doing,” Bowie said. “So why would I come here and go to this and listen to [community affairs coordinator Karen Williams] give her report? That’s what we get out of this. It’s time you guys did a little transparency and tell us what’s going on.”
“Not after the fact,” Elder added.
Smith said he agreed with the call for increased transparency, and said that the council’s hope was that rearranging the times would achieve just that.
“We want to do a lot of good things for the town, and we need input,” Smith said.
Paulin encouraged continued input and said they will continue discussion of potential time changes at the next work session, scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 18.
The council also introduced as a new business item their intent to potentially purchase the Henderson property, which is located along the Potomac Waterfront “somewhat adjacent” to the town’s planned boardwalk, Paulin said, and could provide necessary potential easements for expansion.
Paulin said the acquisition of the property could help provide much-needed river access when the boardwalk is finally open, which the town hopes will happen in the next few months.
Bowie questioned whether the purchase would be a joint venture. Paulin said they are hoping to partner with the county to develop plans for the property. The potential purchase will be discussed at the next work session and business meeting.