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Town board tries to boost public attendance at meetings

East Hampton Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and the other members of the town board carried out an experiment in open government recently.

They moved the town board meeting from Friday mornings to Thursday nights in the hope that more residents would be able to attend and participate.

But at the most recent meeting, on Jan. 21, only about a quarter of the seats in the town board meeting room were filled.

The board is hoping for a better turnout Saturday, in a session considered the biggest experiment in public participation so far. Wilkinson, who was elected in November, has reserved the auditorium at East Hampton High School - one of the biggest meeting spaces in the town - for a "stakeholders' " meeting, starting at 3 p.m.

"We want an open forum. We want as many residents as possible [to] participate in open government," Wilkinson said, adding that he wants full-time residents, part-time residents, summer homeowners and "people who work all day" to show up and offer their views on how town government should be changed.

The Jan. 21 meeting fell on a dark and cold Thursday night. "It may be the dead of winter," Wilkinson said, speculating on the reason for the low turnout. "It may be we'll just have to wait a while" before attendance picks up.

Indeed, it was not the kind of weekday evening that would lure people easily out of the comfort of their homes.

Few of those who did attend asked questions. But much of the board's discussion focused on arcane bits of civil law - why old urban renewal maps were being merged and divided to allow one property owner to break up a home building lot.

Newly elected town board member Theresa Quigley said she was not disappointed at the low public turnout. She indicated it might have something to do with the agenda.

"People like discussion. They don't want to just sit and listen," she said. "I'd love to get more discussion going. I like to look into a crowd and have people ask questions."

But the town board, like others on Long Island, typically discusses proposed resolutions at work sessions, leaving only formal votes for the official meeting.

"When we get resolutions, we talk about it, do due diligence," Quigley said. Then, when the public vote comes up, there is often quick, simple "yes" votes.

"If I had my druthers, I'd hope the meetings will go on until 2 a.m.," she said. "Not that I want to be up at 2 a.m., but I want people to feel they have the opportunity to speak, of being listened to. There are issues in the town they care about."

The board's work sessions, which are open to the public, now include one on the last Saturday of each month, starting at 10 a.m.

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