The Sedgwick County Commissioners will be taking their regular meeting on the road next week.
Holding meetings in their districts is part of a broader plan they have for engaging the community.
The Sedgwick County Commissioners normally hold their weekly meetings on Wednesday mornings at the County Courthouse in downtown Wichita. This month, they're trying something different. Next week’s meeting will be Monday evening--in Derby. The meeting will be held at the Derby Welcome Center at 611 Mulberry Rd.
Commission Chairman Jim Howell proposed the idea.
"Many people who are interested in our meetings or interested in seeing their county commissioners or talking with them have a very difficult time actually attending the meetings on Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m.," he says. "So I just think we need to be a little bit more accessible to the public and allow the public an opportunity to see one of our meetings."
He says this is the first time they’ve moved a commission meeting out of the Courthouse. The April 18 meeting will be in the county’s 5th District, which Howell represents.
Howell says the plan is to hold a meeting in each of the four other districts throughout the rest of the year. He says he’s committed to the idea, but wants to see how it goes in Derby.
"If we plan for 100 people and only 10 people show up, we might want to change the way we do this. Or likewise, if we plan for 100 and 150 show up we might want to change it the other way," he says. "We certainly want to learn from our experience…we really don’t know what to expect right now."
What commissioners will also be learning is what it will cost the county for holding this special meeting. Because the meeting is at night, there are added expenses for staffing.
"My guess is this is probably going to cost us a few hundred dollars to have this meeting in the evening, but I think it’s well worth it," he says.
Generally, the only time the commissioners hold an evening meeting is during the budget process so they can hear from the public. Howell says that’s the goal for these in-district meetings: engaging the community.
But having the meeting outside of the regular routine means the public won’t actually be able to watch the proceedings live, unless they are at the meeting in Derby. KPTS Channel 8 normally carries the commission meetings live, but next week, it will air a recording of Monday’s meeting on Wednesday at 9 a.m., two days after the meeting.
The commissioners are trying another way to reach residents in their districts: a monthly electronic newsletter, one for each commissioner. The first newsletters went out earlier this month.
"It’s not intended to be political. It’s not intended to promote any particular candidate or that type of situation," Howell says. "But really more or less, just promote the things that we think are good in this community and share some of our personal thoughts on some of the policies we are touching."
The newsletters are an opt-in system, so residents who would like to receive the commissioners’ emails can sign up on Sedgwick County’s website.
The commissioners, and chairman Jim Howell in particular, are also trying to increase their face time with residents by getting out of the office. They are stepping up visits to community organizations and attending neighborhood association meetings, township meetings and various ceremonies.
Howell is three months into his role as commission chairman.
"I have taken this very seriously and I think it’s part of transparency. By me getting out of my office and going out to meet with these folks where they have their meetings, is extremely important. Again, I think it is beneficial to them...as well as certainly very beneficial to me," he says.
The off-site meetings, new newsletter and increased public appearances come as Sedgwick County works to improve its image and overall communications strategy. Longtime spokeswoman Kristi Zukovich was let go earlier this year and the remaining internal county communications staff now report to the county manager, who is new to the job.
Kate Flavin was the assistant to the county manager when she took over the county’s external communications after Zukovich left. The county is in the process of creating a new public information officer position, but before that job is filled, officials want to hire a new deputy county manager.
There are also new senior staff in other county departments. At a February commission meeting, Howell defended the personnel moves.
"Every time someone comes in, they bring with them experience, vision and ideas. And when they present ideas that are better than something that we are doing now, if it requires some restructuring or requires some difference in what we’ve done in the past, we have to be willing to have those discussions and make those changes when it makes sense [and] it brings good things for Sedgwick County," he said.
Two commissioners are up for re-election this fall: Tim Norton, who represents the 2nd District, and Karl Peterjohn, who represents the 3rd District. What happens in November will determine if there will be a change in the conservative majority on the commission, which took shape when chairman Howell came on board last year.