By Miriam Raftery
February 12, 2021 (La Mesa) – Helix Water District Board President Joel Scalzitti wants to move public board meetings to 2 p.m.. The issue will be on the agenda on Wednesday, Feb. 17.
Scalzitti was an early proponent of moving meetings from evenings to 2 p.m. in hopes of increasing public participation. But both Scalzitti and General Manager Carlos Lugos say that the change in participation levels proved only minimal – and now with Zoom, people can access meetings on computers or cell phones even while at work or working from home.
With meetings dragging on late into the evening, Scalzitti stated in a phone interview with ECM, “I think it’s important for staff members along with us, as well as the community members to be able to go home and have dinner with our families.”
He adds, “I was a big advocate of moving it to where it was at 5 p.m. to get more transparency fo the people andwe’ve done that for four years now, and we don’t have much a difference in people showing up or being part of our meetings at all.
Lugos confirmed to ECM, “This is not a staff request, or a request from me.” He added that staff will accommodate whatever time the directors set.
In the past, some members ran on a campaign platform of moving meetings later so that working people could participate. The board voted to move meetings to 5 p.m., with committee meetings at 4 p.m.. Meetings were briefly shifted to 4 p.m. during Mark Gracyk’s tenure as president, though meeting times were sometimes changed to accommodate long agenda items such as budget discussions.
Both Gracyk and director Dan McMillan stated in a 2016 candidate forum that they supported moving meetings earlier, and later voted to do so.
McMillan told ECM via email, “For the last year we have noted that the public has shown little interest in our meetings. Given that Helix now has rates that are in the BOTTOM third (1/3) of water agencies in the county, it has increased customer confidence in the board's action and reduced customer participation at our meetings,” he adds, noting that he’s held the line against rate hikes.
He supports a trial period for earlier board meetings on administrative matters, but adds that rate hearings or other large items “will always be later in the day or early evening” to maximize public participation.
McMillan encourage the public to “drop the board a note or Zoom with us” to provide input, or call in to voice views on any agenda item. “With all meetings on zoom or the telephone we provided an excellent avenue for public input,” he says.
Gracyk objects to the time change. “Any working person or family won’t be able to attend, and if you’re trying to work at home, your kids might be trying to attend Zoom classes on the computer,” he told ECM in a phone interview.
But Scalzitti notes that most people have multiple devices and could access meetings via cell phone if they’re working at home and a child needs the computer for school work.
Gracyk counters, “We’ve shown and other agencies have shown that you increase public participation with evening meetings.”
Lugos says the increase in public participation during the past four years has been only minimal with evening meetings instead of afternoon sessions. Scalzitti said the advent of Zoom during the pandemic has made meetings more accessible for all – and that he plans to continue broadcasting meetings over Zoom even after the pandemic is lifted and in-person meetings can resume.
Both Lugos and Scalzitti indicated that meeting times will be changed to evenings if needed to maximize public participation and transparency on controversial items such as proposed rate changes. “Absolutely,” Scalzitti affirmed
Lugos said the district plans to also reach out to customers through community meetings, which will be “staggered at different times” to accommodate people with different work schedules.