Making their way around a room studded with tables, informational posters and documents for review, Jackson County residents took advantage of their first opportunity — Tuesday, Nov. 29 — to see where county leaders envisioned steering the county over the next 25 years.
As the saying goes, change is life’s only constant — so Jackson County is looking for input to guide its approach to the changes that the next 25 years are likely to bring.
Let’s be completely honest: the Haywood County School Board’s long-time practice of recording its work sessions makes it one of the most transparent elected boards in the region. No other boards in Haywood County do the same, and I’m betting not many in the entire state record work sessions. For that, the school board should be commended.
So when School Board Chairman Chuck Francis announced Aug. 4 that the board would stop recording those sessions, many of us who argue for open government were incensed. When a board embraces openness, going backwards seems much worse and more suspicious. Because every presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in the early 1970s has released their tax returns, Donald Trump’s refusal to do so arouses suspicion.
Sylva’s town leaders spent a sunny Saturday indoors armed with pen, paper and heads full of ideas for bringing the small town toward a bright future. And while they may not have left the building with a perfect road map, the four-hour brainstorming session ended with some solid ideas for how to prepare Sylva for success.
A standing-room only crowd turned out for a public hearing on steep slope rules in Jackson County last week and implored county leaders to uphold existing protections against mountainside development.
The way road projects get selected and prioritized in the state’s six westernmost counties might shift slightly following meetings this week and last by local government officials and transportation experts.
The method of weighing the projects will be tweaked to heighten safety issues. Crash data compiled by the state Highway Patrol will be factored into the equation. Elected officials serving on the Transportation Advisory Committee said, however, they want to see what that actually does to the alignment of projects before endorsing the approach.
How exactly the state Department of Transportation moves forward on road building and road improving has raised pointed questions recently about political and personal gain versus public good and needs. Controversy in the past couple months erupted over two projects in particular: Needmore Road in Swain and Macon counties and N.C. 107 in Jackson County.
The transportation department has proposed paving and widening a 3.3-mile section of Needmore, a gravel one-lane road beside the Little Tennessee River. Needmore cuts through the protected Needmore Game Lands, and opponents say the environmental risks posed are simply too great (see accompanying article on page 9).
In Sylva, the transportation department this month held a public information session on how traffic on N.C. 107 between Sylva and Cullowhee could be reduced. Concepts included widening and building a whole new connector road. At least 200 people turned out for the session, and Smart Roads, a local activist group, promised to monitor and publicize the process going forward.
For all the outcries, no one from the public was present at either of two meetings where a bit of the rubber meets the road when it comes to transportation projects in the far west: Jackson, Macon, Swain, Cherokee, Clay and Graham counties. One meeting was for county and town planners and other government officials, a second was held Monday night for county commissioners and town council members.
Southwestern Development Commission, a regional planning group headquartered in Sylva, organized the get-togethers.
In the state’s six westernmost counties, road planning is headed up by the Southwestern Development Commission, headquartered in Sylva, which serves as the lead-planning agency for the rural transportation planning organization (RPO).
Southwestern Commission provides staff and GIS (geographic information system) support. The RPO consists of a technical coordinating committee (government officials) and a transportation advisory committee (elected officials). The government officials, as in real life, exist simply to make staff-level recommendations to the elected officials, who make the policies.
• To provide a forum for public participation in the rural transportation planning process and serve as a local link for residents of the region to communicate with the transportation department.
• To develop, prioritize and promote proposed transportation projects that the RPO believes should be included in the State Transportation Improvement Program.
• To assist the transportation department in publicizing its programs and service and providing additional transportation-related information to local governments and other interested organizations and persons.
• To conduct transportation-related studies and surveys for local governments and other interested entities and organizations.
• To promote transportation as a regional issue requiring regional solutions.
When Haywood county commissioners decided a few weeks ago to adopt new rules guiding public comment at their meetings, some cried foul. I wondered what took them so long.
The Smoky Mountain News and most of our brethren in the print news business in this region take very seriously our role as local government watchdogs. The very fact that there are so many newspapers in the mountains that retain what some might regard as an old-school attitude about this fourth estate tradition only means good things for readers and citizens. It’s rare that public officials in the mountains can stray from accepted rules of behavior and not get called out by someone, either in a news story, an editorial or column, or a letter to the editor from an irate constituent.
In my world order, that is just as it should be.
Treating as sacred the process of open government does not, however, mean that elected officials have to conduct their business amid a backdrop of incessant, often irrelevant, time-consuming complaints from their constituents. A true democracy can indeed be very messy, so it has to adopt rules to keep things both civil and efficient.
Of course elected officials, county commissioners included, have to listen to the public — especially when the public is pissed off about something they have done. It comes with the territory. If these new rules were in any way written so that it was obvious that the intent was to squelch public debate, then we’d be raising more hell than anyone.
In Haywood County, though, some meetings have been opened with up to two hours of comment on a wide variety of issues, some relevant and some very irrelevant. County employees, those with business before the board, and commissioners themselves have their time wasted. Often the public comment session is more about grandstanding than trying to get a word in with election officials about an important issue.
We will always be the first in line to stand up for the public’s right to open government, including access to elected officials. But we still have to go by rules that let government be as efficient as possible. The guidelines adopted by commissioners will at least keep the meetings moving along more smoothly.
And those with a beef can always take the time to meet privately with their elected officials. Truth be told, those one-on-one meetings will usually accomplish more than a few minutes at a podium during a commissioner meeting.
It’s one of those seemingly contradictory ideas, but one that is wise: logging at the Waynesville watershed will provide environmental benefits.
The Waynesville watershed contains some of the purest water in the state, and the town has locked up nearly 8,000 acres in a conservation easement to protect its drinking water source. But that easement contained language that allows limited logging, and it was a controversial plan when it was approved in a 2005 by a 3-2 vote of aldermen.
Now the rubber is hitting the road, so to speak, as a plan to cut white pines on about 50 acres of the watershed is up for consideration by town leaders. Despite the worries of some that the logging will do more damage than good, the wise management of this watershed — including some logging — should make the forest healthier.
Yes, the town stands to reap some money from the logging. However, the agreement put in place five years ago does not allow town leaders to consider potential profit from logging as a factor in their management decisions.
Modern forestry and the old logging of bygone years are as different as night and day. This is a plan to make the forest healthier and thereby increase chances that the water in the reservoir will remain clean and viable as a drinking water source. It’s just a good idea.
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.
As Haywood County commissioners grapple with a surge in this public input at their meetings, largely from the same crowd week after week, The Smoky Mountain News checked in with surrounding counties to see how they handle public comment periods.
Every county seems to have regulars, who are practically staples of every meeting, rarely passing up a turn at the mic during the public comment period that kicks off proceedings.
Theoretically, counties in the area all limit speakers to 3 minutes, with public comments not exceeding 30 minutes per meeting. What actually occurs, though, varies within each county and from meeting to meeting.
Buncombe is one of the few counties other than Haywood that air their county meetings on a government cable channel. But about eight years ago, repeat citizen speakers got so “nasty” and occupied so much time that commissioners decided to take the public comment portion off the air, while continuing to televise the rest of the meeting.
Buncombe also started a pre-meeting public comment period in addition to the 30 untelevised minutes of comment during regular proceedings.
Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene said once public comments were taken off the air, the commissioners noted a dramatic change. “We saw a drastic drop in the repetitive speakers,” said Greene. “There was an uproar by people who routinely came and spoke, but they could still speak. It just wasn’t aired.”
In January, Buncombe decided to give it another go and televise public comments once again. Since the commissioners re-aired the public comment period, the number of speakers has picked up again, Greene said.
There are other options for citizens who want to reach their commissioners’ ears, though. Greeene said many residents opt for the hassle-free method of e-mailing them their questions and opinions instead of regularly heading to meetings.
Jackson has one of the most dedicated group of regulars of any county.
“The same people come every time and they say the same thing, and that’s their constitutional right,” said Chairman Brian McMahan.
McMahan said he’s usually lenient with the time limit for speakers, depending on how many people are waiting their turn to speak. Most are gracious and conclude when their time is up.
Jackson County’s meetings are not televised, though portions are sometimes played on the local AM radio station. McMahan said he wished the county had the capability to televise their meetings.
“Most of your average citizens don’t show up,” McMahan said. “They have no clue what happens in their government.”
On those rare occasions that more citizens show up than the commissioners can accommodate, McMahan makes sure speakers strictly adhere to the 3-minute limit. When a public hearing on a proposed subdivision moratorium attracted a crowd of 1,300 people three years ago, a timekeeper held up flash cards with different colors indicating just how much time each speaker had remaining.
McMahan said other boards across the country allow citizens to call in with their comments or webcast their meetings to reach more constituents.
Meanwhile, McMahan estimated that 80 percent of public hearings in Jackson County don’t bring in any speakers at all.
“There will not be a single soul,” said McMahan. “That’s sort of sad that no one cares enough to come out and voice their opinion.”
Swain County keeps a timer visible at every meeting so citizens can know their time frame down to the very second.
Swain County Chairman Glenn Jones said he believes public comment should be allowed even if citizens sometimes use it inappropriately.
“A lot of people, they’ll just use it as a sounding board,” said Jones. “When it becomes that, it’s not being used properly. It’s for people who have a legitimate gripe.”
While Swain doesn’t air its meetings, a long-standing regular during the public comment periods videotapes county meetings as a personal endeavor.
Macon County Chairman Ronnie Beale said his board maintains a fairly liberal policy, depending on the subject and how many people sign up to speak.
“We usually don’t have big crowds coming to rag on us,” said Beale. But when citizens do show up en masse, that’s when Macon County’s timer comes out. Like McMahan, Beale said he wished Macon County could broadcast their meetings.
As county planner in Macon County, Stacey Guffey knows a little bit about controversy and soliciting public opinion.