When the Amarillo City Council made an announcement last August that they planned to change their regular meeting time from 5PM to 7AM each Tuesday, the decision came as a surprise to many in the community and drew national media attention to the Panhandle. However, records obtained by the Amarillo Pioneer appear to show Mayor Ginger Nelson floated the time change before the announcement was made last August.
According to records obtained through a request filed with the City of Amarillo, Mayor Ginger Nelson floated the idea of changing the City Council’s meeting times in July, prior to the City Council’s first public discussion of the proposed change in August. In an email dated July 22, 2018, Nelson emailed Amarillo city manager Jared Miller, and mentioned a family member’s middle school football schedule would conflict with the 5PM meeting times. Nelson then told Miller to “discuss options” on changing the meeting times.
“We need to discuss options so the council can talk about shifting our meeting times if that is necessary,” Nelson wrote to Miller. The Mayor also attached a copy of the mentioned football schedule, which showed games at various venues, with the final game planned for late October 2018.
No additional emails were provided in documents turned over to the Amarillo Pioneer, which indicates no follow up email was sent.
Councilmembers ended up first publicly discussing the proposed meeting time change at a City Council work session on August 7, 2018. At that time, Miller introduced the possible time change, citing expenses involved with keeping staff on hand for 5PM meetings. At the time, Miller called the proposed change part of a “balancing act” of managing staff expenditures for the meetings.
During the August 7th discussion, Nelson asked for Miller’s recommendation, to which Miller replied would suggest a 7AM start time for the meetings. However, during that discussion, Miller wasn’t the only person to act favorably toward the proposal to change the meeting time. Other Councilmembers also spoke favorably of changing to an early morning start time, which, if it had been approved, would have been one of the earliest start times of any Texas governing body.
“I would like in the morning…to get it out of the way for the day,” Councilman Howard Smith said during the August meeting.
Nelson also addressed the meeting time change proposal during that work session, calling City Council meetings a “burden.”
“I like Tuesdays,” Nelson said. “It is a burden for those serving in office, because it comes around quickly…If you have family obligations, if you have business obligations, you are scheduling around those things.”
However, while Councilmembers appeared to support the time change in that meeting, it did not appear to be a completely unified front in private. A text message from Miller to Nelson on August 15th appeared to show that at least one Councilmember had reservations about the time change.
“[Councilwoman Elaine Hays] very opposed to mtg time,” Miller told Nelson via text. “She will call you soon. We 3 can all meet to discuss options if you'd like. She feels that I moved too abruptly and should have gotten more input.”
During the debate over the meeting times, several citizens spoke in opposition to the time change, with some, like local activist Kip Billups, placing the blame on Nelson for the proposed time change. However, in an exchange between Billups and Nelson’s husband, Kevin, which was caught on video in August, Kevin Nelson said it was a “lie” that Nelson was behind the proposal for the time change.
“Whose idea was it,” Kevin Nelson asked Billups, to which the activist replied he believed it was Nelson’s. Kevin Nelson then responded, “that’s a lie.”
In an interview with the Amarillo Pioneer late last year, editor Thomas Warren also posed the question to city manager Miller of who originally conceived the time change. During that interview, Miller would not confirm whether the City Council was involved in the initial idea to change the meeting time, but did say he proposed the change in the work session.
“In the meeting I proposed it, and I didn’t think we would go as early as we initially ended up going,” Miller said. Miller also said he was not sure of when the discussion over changing the meeting time originally began.
The city manager elaborated, saying not so much from a standpoint of the City Council, but from a staff standpoint, he wanted to ensure whatever meeting time was selected would allow staff to prepare for the planned meetings.
“I proposed that we go to some other time like we used to do…while Councilmembers have commonly have conflicts in the evenings, I proposed we meet in the morning,” Miller said. “It’s an important meeting, so you have to make sure you are adequately prepared for it.”
City Councilmembers eventually agreed to meet at 7AM each Tuesday, but after a backlash from the community, decided to change the meeting times to 1PM each Tuesday. Dr. Eddy Sauer, a City Councilman who is also head of a dental practice in Amarillo, cited his work schedule as a reason he could not meet at 7AM, after appearing to originally support the meeting time change during the August 7th meeting.
However, the 1PM meeting has still drawn criticism from some in the community. One of Nelson’s announced challengers for the May 2019 elections has regularly addressed her concerns on the meeting times during public comment sessions at the 1PM meetings, and said she feels the time change did not serve citizens well.
“As an elected official, you signed up to selflessly serve the citizens, therefore your schedule should be tailored to accommodate theirs, and not your own,” mayoral candidate Claudette Smith said. “You work for the people, not the other way around.”
Richard Herman, a former Potter County justice of the peace who is also challenging Nelson in May, agreed with Smith’s comments, but said if a board’s presiding officer is unable to attend a Council meeting, other Councilmembers should be trained to pick up the slack.
“It's understandable, and I can empathize with this because sometimes our schedules conflict with other priorities,” Herman said. “Now you can call me old fashioned but my Grandma used to say ‘one person don't stop no show’, and I agree with Grandma because we have other elected council members who are on the team that should be willing and able to pick up the gavel, and take charge.”
Tom Warren, an Amarillo businessman who has also filed a treasurer appointment for a possible 2019 campaign for a yet-to-be-announced seat, also said he opposes changing meeting times to make accommodations for elected officials.
“Any decent elected official that is working for the constituents and not for special interests puts the needs of those constituents over anything personal,” Warren said. “Picking fights, moving meeting times and more of these self-serving actions are truly distressing regarding the current City Council. I’m confident voters will get this right in May.”
Nelson is running for re-election, and is facing Herman and Smith in the May election, with other rumored candidates possibly on the way. Filing to run for office begins tomorrow.
Please note: Tom Warren is the publisher of the Amarillo Pioneer. Warren had no approval of the content of this article prior to publication.