By Linda Dillman
Canal Winchester Community Coffees, started with the intent to be an informal forum for residents to gather together, share their concerns and comment on city life, have become a hot topic for the city council.
Sparked by a request for meeting space, a discussion ensued between council members and city administrators during a June 17 Canal Winchester City Council meeting.
Previous coffees were held in free meeting spaces throughout the community, but—according to current rules—if a council member wants to hold a public event not sponsored by the city in a city-owned property, they are required to pay a fee.
“At the first June meeting, other council members stated they would be willing to chip in towards the rental if they took a turn on coffee,” said Councilwoman Jill Amos. “However, to ensure that we did not have a delay in getting the information out this month, I did pay $80 to rent a facility for two hours. The Interurban Building has been beautifully remodeled in the past years and now has a large conference table, restrooms, and beautiful photos of Canal Winchester from days past. It is the perfect place to sit around and talk about our amazing city.”
Amos suggested that council members be allowed a fee waiver for a specific number of meetings held for the public that are not city sponsored. The request sparked the discussion during which Mayor Mike Ebert said he nixed her initial request.
Ebert said Amos and fellow council member Will Bennett held the coffees at various business locations on their own without full council approval.
“Things changed along the way and Ms. Amos asked about using the Interurban Building every fourth Saturday for the coffees and ask that I waive the user fee,” said Ebert.
According to city ordinance, the mayor has the authority to restrict the use of the buildings and set special fees if appropriate for three classifications of rentals set by council. Each classification has separate rates.
“Since this was a non-city sponsored function of two council members, they would fall within the Class-II category at $40 per hour,” said Ebert. “I explained my reason for the fee and also told Ms. Amos if she would like to discuss this with council at an upcoming meeting and they view it differently, I would be happy to waive the fee. Council agreed with my reasoning. Additionally, the ordinance states that a group with free rental is not permitted to use the buildings on weekends, they want Saturdays.”
According to Ebert, if council as a whole chooses to assume control of the coffees, then they would become a city sponsored event and no fee is involved.
Ebert said interested council members are free to keep the coffees informal, but they cannot be held gratis on city property because it has the appearance of a city function sponsored by council.
“They should not call them Coffee with Council because it has never been voted on or adopted by council,” said Ebert. “They are currently holding the coffees as representatives of council and discussing city business. All discussions should be recorded for public knowledge. If done as an entire body of council, they could have some merit but it could be very time consuming for council as public minutes would need to be kept and retained.”
Bennett did not feel finding a location for the coffees was an issue. He felt it was more a question of consistency so residents know where to go on a regular basis.
“Much like how Canal Winchester Community Coffee falls on the fourth Saturday morning of each month, I believe providing a consistent location provides more stability for the event makes it more sustainable,” said Bennett. “On several occasions, we have had residents arrive late stating that they thought it was at a prior location or had trouble finding it on Facebook to obtain the location. The first thing to know is that there is definitely work to do for improving the process for sharing information with our fellow council members as well as members of city staff.”
Amos said her concern is that with too many rules (if the event fell under city control) residents and/or council members may feel restricted in the ability to maintain an open format.
“That being said, I strongly believe that we are in a learning curve for this fairly new event and that the process has room for improvement in the communication with the city staff and other council members,” said Amos. “Laying out a practice for how we relay information to city staff and when necessary, back to the resident, is what we need to focus on at this time.”
Canal Winchester resident Cindi Lynch also felt there was a need for more open communication and lauded Amos and fellow council member and husband Pat Lynch for an initiative to videotape future council meetings.
Cindi Lynch said that, in the interim, city resident Michele Reynolds volunteered to tape each meeting, which Lynch posts on CW Residents for Responsible Growth on Facebook.
Pat Lynch felt the benefits of community coffees go both ways and, as a city representative, he welcomes feedback from residents regarding their concerns and how would they like to see the city move forward.
“The residents benefit from being able to get direct feedback and sometimes very candid feedback from their elected officials,” said Pat Lynch. “I am not sure why the city does not support this and why some council members would require Will and Jill to provide them notes, but not support it. This puzzles me. Both council people (Bennett and Amos) have found a very easy way to get feedback from the community and as stated before, provide insight and clarity to resident’s concerns and question. They should be applauded for putting themselves out there and developing a very creative community outreach venue.”