|Fort Thomas resident Tiffany Huber addresses council on communication methods.|
By Robin Gee, City Council Beat Editor
This month, city council will hold two meetings to ensure state deadlines and rules are met for the annual fiscal year budget process. At this first of two meetings, council heard a first reading of the budget and also heard from community members. The meeting opened with two proclamations by Mayor Eric Haas.
|Barre 3 Ft. Thomas. Located in Fort Thomas Plaza at 90 Alexandria Pike.|
Remembering and raising awareness
The city and surrounding communities will go orange on Friday, June 7, to commemorate the first National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Haas signed a proclamation to set aside the first Friday in June each year to honor and remember victims of gun violence and to promote gun safety awareness.
The day came at the request last month of area residents to join in the national day. People are asked to wear orange on that day and some cities will light up public buildings with orange lights.
|Mayor Eric Haas commemorate National Gun Violence Awareness Day by signing a proclamation. Center are (l to r) Crimson MacDonald and Kacie Elliot of Moms Demand Action and Julianna Marie Russ of March for Our Lives with Haas an council.|
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Honoring a beloved Fort Thomas business
Haas also announced a proclamation setting Saturday, June 8, as Blue Marble Day. The nationally known Blue Marble Books was started here in Fort Thomas by Tina Moore in 1979 and has promoted and instilled a love of reading in area children (and adults) for 40 years. Tina Moore passed away two years ago, and her husband Peter Moore continues with the business to the delight of the entire community.
Haas will attend an ice cream social and festivities at the bookstore starting at noon on June 8. The store is located at 1356 South Fort Thomas Avenue.
RELATED: Celebrating 40 YEARS at Blue Marble Books!
Asking for more communication and transparency
Tiffany Huber of Hawthorne Avenue in Fort Thomas spoke to council on the subject of transparency and the need for better communication between city officials and residents. In particular, she pointed to improvements needed on the city’s website.
"I view transparency as the number one priority for this city...I think that would be my first question overall, if the city has five top priorities where does transparency rank on that? What are the top priorities for the city?...I applaud you for all the work you are doing, but how do we know that if there is not a mechanism to show that to the residents?" Huber asked.
She went on to say that she felt citizens needed more opportunity for input. "How can I provide real input to our city government? A lot of the times, by the time it gets to the council or the Planning and Zoning committee you all are so far down the planning of that citizen input is considered to be a formality...So if you are talking about something that matters to residents, what is the forum by which communication is not just heard, but listened to and incorporated into what’s going to be happening with the city?"
Haas and Assistant City Administrator Joe Ewald pointed to the city’s comprehensive plan as driving city priorities. Committees discuss these priorities and plans at meetings that are open to the public and then bring them forward to council.
"At meetings we talk about what’s in the comprehensive plan. We have done nothing more than that. We do spend a good deal of time researching what can we do, where we are on the steps... but basically the stuff that is happening is all happening in the public meetings. Sunshine laws prevent us from having outside conversations at the city level, and we stick to that," said Haas.
Huber acknowledged the work that went into the plan and its importance but said communications are lacking in how to have input and get information about how they are developing, especially on the city’s website.
City website is key for information
"This is why I go back to why the website is so key," said Huber. "I think we need to hire somebody to do the website for us. I think there is more technology that we can use as a city that can help us provide information to the citizens. It allows us to get information from 16,000 plus residents instead of possibly 200 who spent a lot of sweat and tears at the visioning process, but that may not have represented the 16,000 plus people who live here."
She asked council to consider adding the topic of the website and transparency as a recurring agenda item at the council meetings.
"I agree we can do a far better job on the website," said Ewald. "We try to keep everybody abreast of public hearings. I know meetings are posted far in advance...all of the hearings stemming from the Fort Thomas development were published far in advance or at least as far as we knew about it."
Council member Roger Peterman added that a good way to identify priorities is also the city budget. He mentioned that a public budget hearing was held but had little citizen participation.
Meetings are where much of the discussion takes place, said council member Jeff Bezold. "For example, the developer for the recent project had an idea. He did his research and brought it to the Planning and Zoning committee. If you have an idea about keeping or changing or adjusting zoning rules, you can take it to Planning and Zoning. That’s exactly how it works. That’s literally square one," he said.
Peterman said, "What you are saying is citizen input and it is so important...people in Fort Thomas are involved...but more people can be engaged and the more broad community-based engagement, the better decisions we will make."
Work is being done on the website, but officials acknowledged the site could be much more user friendly.
"I do get your point," acknowledged council member Mark Collier. "There are some things that we can do to make it better right away. We are in the middle of that process." He added the process has been slower than he would like, but it is continuing.
Bonnie Lane resident Bonita Frentzel said she agreed with Huber that more work needs to be done to make the process of citizen input and information clearer, especially on the website. She said she tries to come to as many city meetings as she can but still is unsure which meetings are open.
Questions and answers about public input
City officials clarified the differences between the various meetings held at the city. Here are a few questions and answers about city meetings and public access.
What city meetings are open to the public?
Almost ALL committee and council meetings are open to the public. Exceptions to this are meetings concerning hiring and personnel issues and executive sessions. Executive sessions are mandated by the state as closed sessions due to the sensitive nature of certain discussions.
When does the public have an opportunity to speak on the issues?
While the public is invited to attend all committee meetings, they may not be invited to speak unless they have made a prior request for something specific such as a variance or zoning exception or change.
The regular city council meetings always include an opportunity for citizens to speak on any issue they feel is important to share with the council and the community.
What is a public hearing and how is that different than a regular meeting?
A very important opportunity for citizen input is the public hearing. When there is a lot of interest in a topic within the community, a committee or council may hold a special public hearing.
The sole reason for a public hearing IS to give citizens a chance to weigh in on a topic. Often the public hearing happens at a related committee meeting. The committee may choose to hold a regular meeting after the public hearing part of the evening has closed. Committee members may then discuss and vote on the issue or, if they feel more input is needed, they can set another public hearing.
What if I attend a regular committee meeting and did not have the opportunity to speak but I want to weigh in on this topic?
Citizens can take their comments and concerns about issues discussed at committees to the city council meeting, and talk about it in the open “visitor input” portion of the council meeting.
Huber said she will continue to remind officials about the need for better communication and transparency, something she feels should be a top priority.
Plans for improvements to the website are underway, and the city is working on developing and email blast list for citizens to sign up to get additional information. Officials encouraged citizens to call and ask questions and share concerns.
Huber agreed. She said now is the time to ask "How do we move forward together on this and create a win-win situation?"
Council heard first readings of the city budget amendment for 2018/19 and the new city budget ordinance for 2019/2020, as well as employee pay ordinances and changes to police procedural manuals. A copy of the budget summary is available from the city.
The city also had a first hearing of an amendment to personnel policies related to the recently adopted Kentucky Pregnant Workers Act. The act strengthens language allowing for reasonable accommodations for employees who are pregnant or who recently gave birth.
Changes to the police department’s Policy and Procedures Manual are being done as part of a statewide accreditation process.
The next city council meeting is Monday, June 17, starting at 7pm in the Fort Thomas City Building, 130 North Fort Thomas Avenue.