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Wednesday, 28 October 2009 20:30

Irritating public comment must be tolerated

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Haywood County elected officials may sometimes get fed up dealing with the incessant public record requests and the three-hour meetings that a new wave of public scrutiny is forcing upon them, but there’s no good alternative except to take the medicine no matter how distasteful. Even at the county commission level, elected officials have as a first obligation the task of remaining answerable to the public — even when the public becomes immensely irritating.

Over the last several months a group that is loosely associated with — or at least resembles — the 9-12 national movement has begun going public with comments on local issues. They’ve been attending nearly every commission meeting, taking extended turns at the microphone during the public comment session. The constituents are spending public money by extending the meetings taxpayers pay to videotape.

There has been obvious tension between elected officials and those who have come to dominate the public portion of the meetings. Those showing up have been making requests for documents, digital files and other information. On occasion, the requests have been made to several different departments for the same information, a frustrating example of how the county must do the public’s business but at a cost that is often wasteful and unnecessary. Some have even continued to complain, disagree and otherwise make demands long after explanations have been provided.

Perhaps most frustrating for elected officials and county workers, is this — some of these folks have been provided information or facts but then act as if they don’t know the why, what or how much. One county official said it was as bad as lying, to act as if something isn’t known when indeed it is.

So what now? Nothing.

There’s simply no way to muzzle public comment in a democracy, no way to stifle the voices of those who demand an audience with their elected officials. Despite the cumbersome, capricious nature of what’s going on in Haywood, commissioners are stuck with it.

In almost every case I’ve witnessed over the years of groups or individuals deciding to become involved in local government by showing up at meetings, the result has been positive. Whether it’s builders and pro land-use advocates clashing in Jackson County, North Shore road proponents speaking their mind in Bryson City, or this group now showing up in Haywood County, one can only believe that the public interest is better served when people are involved in local government.

We suspect most of those now appearing before elected officials in Haywood have honorable motives and honest problems. It is the bad apple that ends up spoiling the whole bunch. One or two people grandstanding or going overboard disrupts what, in my mind, is a time-honored process that makes local government the most accountable form of government we have.

The concept of the informed electorate is an important part of this issue. People who get involved and make their opinions known on important subjects are the bedrock of good decision-making by elected officials. But what if there are those who refuse to digest, who ask but don’t listen, whose real mission is not to gather information? How can our democracy function, for all its shortcomings, when some take advantage of the system?

And that’s really the problem. There’s a difference among those who have legitimate concerns and those who use county commission meetings as a platform to air their own views, whether partisan or not. But our system lets everyone have their say, without regard to their motives. As they say in sports, it is what it is.

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