Test of evening meeting time draws crowd for Merced County supervisors
Merced, Calif. (CVJC) – Veterans in decorated caps and students in their gold-embroidered FFA jackets joined a crowded meeting of the Merced County Board of Supervisors, where more than 100 people filled the stuffy room and spilled into the foyer and hallway.
After a Los Banos pastor offered a prayer and the crowd recited the Pledge of Allegiance, residents lined up to voice their concerns. So many people rose to speak that the public comment portion of the meeting exceeded the 30-minute time limit.
It was an unusually large turnout for the county body. But the April 25 meeting was an unusual experiment - one scheduled to start at 6 p.m. Like other county boards across the Central Valley, Merced County’s five supervisors normally meet during business hours, at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, twice each month.
But many residents long have complained they’re unable to attend during the work day. So, bowing to requests from constituents, the supervisors decided to schedule two meetings this year after normal business hours.
Gloria Sandoval, a former high school counselor who now advocates for human rights in Merced, used her moment at the microphone to thank the Merced County supervisors for the evening meeting, declaring it “democracy in action.”
County boards of supervisors represent people living not within city limits but in the scores of unincorporated towns and hamlets spotting the farmland. Across the San Joaquin Valley, that’s nearly one third of residents, according to a PolicyLink analysis of 2000 Census data.
Making time for working-class residents
Besides its six incorporated cities, Merced County has 11 unincorporated communities - ranging from Winton with nearly 12,000 people to the foothill community of Snelling with fewer than 250.
Most city councils in the Valley meet during evening hours to make it easier for residents to participate in their meetings. None of the eight county boards of supervisors regularly do so, although Stanislaus County is a bit of an exception with seven evening meetings scheduled this year.
Daytime meetings are difficult for the working-class residents who make up the majority of Merced County, home to 290,000 residents whose median household income is around $58,000 and where one in five residents lives in poverty, U.S. Census data shows. For many, taking a day off from work would mean sacrificing a day’s wages.
Agriculture is one of the region’s main employers. About 5,000 farm laborers toiled in Merced County fields in May 2021, the latest California employment figures show. In the first quarter of 2022, Merced farm workers earned an average between $31,000-37,000 annually, only slightly higher than the federal poverty level, according to a report from the state Employment Development Department.
Zaray Ramirez, a policy advocate with Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a land use policy advocacy organization, said many residents who suffered losses in recent flooding were unable to attend a recent 10 a.m. meeting set up for them to address their elected representatives.
“The No. 1 thing that gets brought up is time,” Ramirez said in an interview with CVJC. “Since they (the meetings) are usually at 10 in the morning, folks work, and they don't find it as accessible to be able to go at that time to make those board of supervisors meetings.”
Joseph Castillo, a resident who serves on an advisory council for the unincorporated community of Delhi, told CVJC he works in Modesto and can’t attend county board meetings unless he takes a day off. That’s why Delhi’s municipal advisory council (MAC) meetings are in the evenings at 7 p.m., he said. The seven-member council makes recommendations to the county board for issues in their community.
“The more community voices and involvement we get, the better,” Castillo said. “Our meetings are at 7 p.m. for that reason – to give people time to get out of work, even have a little bit of a dinner or bite to eat before they come to make their voices heard.”
Growing support for evening meetings
Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza told CVJC he has always supported and advocated for more evening meetings.
“I think it was a great meeting and the public participation showed that more evening meetings are warranted in the future,” Espinoza said about the April 25 meeting. “More than two a year. At least every other meeting should be in the evening.”
The Institute for Local Government, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting good local governance, recommends choosing meeting times most convenient for the people who will be included. Regular public agency meetings offer an opportunity to increase public understanding and engagement, according to the institute.
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said people who work during the day could be shut out of daytime government meetings and having their voices heard by their representatives.
“Better public access means, ultimately, better policy because the government bodies can better understand what the public that they're serving thinks about the issues that they're discussing,” Snyder said.
Merced County supervisors said they encourage and want residents to show up and participate in meetings.
“We work for them, and so we want to hear what they have to say,” Supervisor Josh Pedrozo said.
Board chair Scott Silveira and Pedrozo previously served on the city councils for Los Banos and Merced, respectively. After serving both city and county residents, they both said people will show up to a meeting for hot-button items they care about regardless of the time .
“The one thing about Merced and Merced County is that if people are passionate, they’ll find time to either reach out to us individually, or they'll get in front of the public and say something,” Pedrozo said.
Distance, technology remain a concern
The meeting time is just one of the obstacles residents face when it comes to accessing their elected representatives. Transportation and language translations are two others, Ramirez and Snyder both noted.
Typically, board meetings for the nearly 2,000-square mile county are held in downtown Merced at the county’s administration building. That’s at least a 40-minute drive from cities on the west side of the county, such as Los Banos and Gustine. Residents there must commit even more time to travel to a meeting, if they have access to a working vehicle in the first place.
Residents also complain about language accessibility, Ramirez said. According to U.S. Census data, nearly 53% of county residents speak a language other than English at home, with the most common languages being Spanish and Hmong.
Merced County board of supervisors meetings are conducted in English without regular translation services and only portions of the meeting agendas are published in Spanish. During the April 25 meeting, the only interpretation provided came during the public comment period when remarks made by Spanish-speaking residents were translated into English.
When the county does provide headset receivers for interpretation services, the devices often don’t work correctly, Ramirez said. Sometimes residents also complain that the interpreters don’t fully capture their comments, she said.
After a volunteer recognition ceremony during the April 25 meeting, residents filed out of the boardroom for a brief reception. Once the meeting reconvened, mostly only department directors dotted the previously filled seats while supervisors conducted county business for the next hour.
Ramirez said when she attends county board meetings during their regular time, many times she only sees county staff in the audience.
Silveira said conducting meetings in the evening ends up costing the county more in staff time. Plus, it can disrupt staff schedules because meetings require so much preparation.
The next evening Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting will be at 6 p.m. on Dec. 12. Supervisors previously suggested having that meeting at the Merced County Courthouse Museum since it will be decorated for the holidays.
“We're going to do another one and we're going to try to see how to do this,” Silveira said. “One of the things that I'm all about is doing people's business in public.”
This story was reported and edited by the Central Valley Journalism Collaborative, cvlocaljournalism.org, a nonprofit newsroom based in Merced, CA.