The Baltimore County Council will hold some of its work sessions in the late afternoon in an effort to improve the public’s ability to weigh in on decisions.
The council voted, 5-2, Tuesday night in favor of a resolution requiring it to conduct its work sessions, at which it discusses legislation, starting at 4 p.m. or later. The council typically debates bills at afternoon work sessions every other week and votes on them at evening legislative meetings.
The schedule change was sponsored by Republicans Wade Kach of Cockeysville and David Marks of Perry Hall and Pikesville Democrat Izzy Patoka. The trio of council members hope the change will make it easier for county residents to attend work sessions and make their voices heard.
“We need to make it as convenient as possible for people to testify,” Kach said.
County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. released a statement Tuesday night praising the council’s action.
“The best governments are transparent, accessible, and connected, and I’m proud of the significant strides my administration has already taken to open Baltimore County government like never before," Olszewski wrote. "I’ve long championed moving the start time of public meetings so that they are more accessible to the public, and I applaud the County Council for moving forward with this reform.”
The county code doesn’t set a start time for work sessions. The council generally convenes sessions around 1 p.m. or 2 p.m. to accommodate the schedules of county employees who need to testify on bills and contracts.
But that timing can be inconvenient or impossible for some residents affected by those bills.
The resolution’s sponsors initially wanted to hold all work sessions at 6 p.m. or later, but they received push-back from their colleagues on the council. Councilmen Todd Crandell of Dundalk, a Republican, and Julian Jones Jr. of Woodstock, a Democrat, voted against the proposal, calling it “a solution looking for a problem."
Council chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said “there’s never been an outcry” over work session start times. She said the council should instead let people testify at legislative meetings before the council votes.
Although Bevins said she doubts a 4 p.m. start time will bring more residents to work sessions, she reluctantly voted for the change. Bevins acknowledged that a slim majority of her colleagues intended to vote for the resolution regardless, even though she and Crandell said they’re worried the time change will become “a deterrent."
“I think we’re fixing a problem that didn’t really exist,” Bevins said.
Kach said the proposal is “about openness and transparency." But Crandell said the change would create new expenses, such as costs for extra security and additional employee hours. Patoka, who said he’s willing to support the 4 p.m. compromise, said those “small expenses” are “well worth it."
The council votes on various fiscal matters as part of its $3.4 billion operating budget. Last year, a divided council approved bills to raise millions of dollars in new revenue, including the county’s first income tax increase in nearly three decades.
The council also made tough decisions on controversial matters, such as the passage of an anti-discrimination housing bill and a proposal to require more security at gun shops. Jones said many people attend work sessions whenever the council tackles “four or five hot-button issues” a year, but people usually don’t attend sessions for the rest of the council’s business.
Residents can offer opinions on bills at a work session or after the council votes on a bill at its evening meetings. Residents can weigh in on anything affecting the county for three minutes at the end of every evening legislative meeting. They can also submit written comments at any time by mail, email, fax, or hand delivery.
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The new work session time will go into effect July 1 to give the county time to publicize the change.