The Amherst Town Board is moving up more of its regular meetings to mid-afternoon this year so that more elected officials and town administrators can have their nights off.
Virtually no other town board in this region routinely holds its regular meetings before 5 p.m., largely because it's less convenient for members of the working public to attend.
At its reorganizational meeting last week, the board unanimously approved moving seven of its 26 regular meetings from 7 p.m. to 3 p.m., including the board's next scheduled meeting on Jan. 18 and all of its meetings in August.
Supervisor Barry Weinstein, who proposed the schedule change, said the board held two of its regular meetings at 3 p.m. last year, which went well. He also said he'd prefer department heads not use comp time to make up for time spent attending night meetings.
"We tried it last year, and we liked the result," he said.
By substituting official meetings for seven informal afternoon work sessions, he said, he also hopes to address criticism that the board makes too many decisions during work sessions and not enough during the regular evening meetings.
The few Amherst residents who regularly attend the town's board meetings expressed concern, saying the proper response to criticism that the board makes too many decisions at afternoon work sessions is the exact opposite of the change the board approved.
Weinstein, however, said most board meetings are sparsely attended by residents, who have access to him and other council members via phone, e-mail and office visits.
"Very few communicate by coming to the podium and speaking at the meeting, very few," he said. "If anyone wants to communicate with the Town Board or the supervisor, waiting two weeks to come to a meeting is not the efficient way of doing it."
All 3 p.m. meetings would still be video recorded and shown on cable access channels.
All council members approved the change, but some expressed concern that the public would be frozen out of public hearings, such as major rezoning decisions, or the creation of new laws.
Council Member Mark Manna asked that the board commit to holding public hearings at 7 p.m. and not schedule them for afternoon meetings. He will submit an amendment to the board's Rules of Order for consideration at the next regular meeting at 3 p.m. on Jan. 18.
"Everyone took this job knowing that meetings are at 7 o'clock at night," he said. "I'd rather inconvenience public officials a little than inconvenience the public a lot."
As it stands, he added, some of the people who used to attend Town Board meetings stopped showing up last year because residents who want to speak to the board on issues that are not on the agenda are forced to wait to the end of the meeting.
"Those people don't come anymore," he said.
Weinstein said he is opposed to banning afternoon public hearings, but several other council members were supportive.
Guy Marlette, reappointed as deputy supervisor this year, said he would co-sponsor Manna's resolution.
"If residents want to pack the chambers to look at their public officials when they make decisions, I'm quite comfortable with that," he said.
He also initiated a motion, unanimously approved, to move three public hearings scheduled for the afternoon meeting on Jan. 18 to the 7 p.m. meeting on Feb. 7.
Scheduling nighttime public hearings might be more difficult, however, during the summer. According to the 2011 schedule, there are no evening meetings currently scheduled between July 18 and Sept. 19.
Weinstein, a former Erie County legislator, said he wanted to give town officials more summer evenings off. He noted that the County Legislature doesn't meet at all in August. Otherwise, legislators meet at 2 p.m.
The Buffalo Common Council also typically meets at 2 p.m., but that standard has not been adopted by towns.