Editor's Note: Making City Council meetings more accessible

WHEN new Savannah Mayor Van R. Johnson II was inaugurated, he said that, "This table of Savannah is going to stand on legs named Trust, Transparency, Accountability, and Inclusion."

I’m not one to be easily impressed by politicians. I have a professional and constitutional mistrust of almost all of them, on general principle.

But you have to give credit where’s it’s due. In a little over a month in office, Johnson is already making great strides with regards to the “transparency” part.

One of the key complaints about local City government for years has been the relative inaccessibility of the twice-monthly City Council meetings.

For many decades — pretty much for all of living memory — City Council has met two Thursdays a month, at 2 p.m., at City Hall at Bull and Bay.

That time has always been inconvenient for citizens who might want to attend who have regular day jobs or need to pick up children from school.

Perhaps conveniently inconvenient, if you know what I mean?

But over the past decade or so, the issue has become even more problematic with increasing congestion downtown, combined with recent parking rate increases, especially in the area of City Hall.

For the 2 p.m. meeting, it can cost you not only the lost work time to attend, but two bucks an hour, for several hours.

This can be especially galling when you realize that at many meetings, the entire first hour is often taken up with various ceremonial presentations, which, while well-meaning, aren’t usually relevant to important policy discussions.

But Mayor Johnson is changing all that, following through on a campaign promise.

Beginning with the Feb. 27 meeting, the second City Council meeting of each month will begin at 6:30 p.m., to give citizens a more convenient time to attend.

The first meeting of each month will stay at the 2 p.m. status quo.

But that’s not all: Parking for all City Council meetings, both nighttime and daytime, will be free for members of the public attending the meetings.

Mayor Johnson revealed the news, and the outline of how it is set to work, at a remarkable media briefing last week.

It will work like this: The City will designate a specific garage, or garages, for citizens to park in who want to attend a City Council meeting, daytime or nighttime.

You will then be able to have the ticket validated at City Hall.

That’s it. Simple, right? Yet it took literally decades for someone to not only think of it, but to make it happen.

“If you’re coming to a City Council meeting, you shouldn’t have to pay for parking,” Johnson said.

Simply put, this change rewards citizens for taking part in their government, instead of penalizing them. And that is the core value of Johnson’s decision.

In related news, Johnson also announced that he is reviving the idea of regular town hall meetings. Every quarter beginning in March, a town hall-style meeting will be held on a rotating schedule between City aldermanic districts.

Mayor Johnson revealed all these developments at a media breakfast last week in a Civic Center meeting room.

There’s an old joke — funny because it’s true — that the best way to get a journalist’s attention is to say “free food.” Last week was more evidence of that.

Jokes aside, the Mayor seemed genuinely engaged and sincere about his idea of increasing transparency not only in terms of citizen participation, but in communicating more candidly with the media in general — something that was often a problem with not only the last administration, but with several before that.

If you respond that Johnson’s reforms are a cynical attempt to curry favor with the media and tell us what we want to hear, I couldn’t necessarily prove you wrong.

Then again, if the end result is more timely, more accurate information getting to the citizens on topics of public interest, who cares? It’s an unqualified good.

The catch is, it would be best if the public would follow through for their part.

“We’ll try this for a couple of months and see how it goes,” Johnson said of the meeting changes. “I suspect that actually we’ll probably have good attendance.”

That, my friends, will be up to you.