The new policy was drafted in response to growing complaints from the public who say they have been blocked out of the decision-making process. Several candidates running for county commissioner in the primary and general elections of 2006 campaigned on the need for more open government.
A top complaint was the lack of a formal public input process for major county decisions, such as the $3 million purchase of 47 acres for school expansion and the selection of a site for a new jail and sheriff’s office.
Another complaint was over agendas for county commissioner meetings. Agendas did not entirely describe what topics would be discussed and there was no mechanism for the public to get a copy.
The new policy addresses these concerns.
“This gives the voters and public of Swain County an opportunity to be more apprised of what’s going on and have more of voice,” said Mike Clampitt, a resident who advocated for the policy.
The policy was passed at a special meeting Dec. 21. Two of the five commissioners are new to the board following November’s election.
While there was not an official mechanism for public comment before, commissioners generally asked anyone who was attending the meeting if they had anything to say. Other times, members of the audience would pipe up during the meeting from their seats.
But without an official mechanism for public comment, it occurred at the board’s discretion. Sometimes that would be at the end of a meeting after they had already voted.
“Speaking after the fact doesn’t help,” Clampitt said.
The new policy will end people piping up from their seats, however, and formalize the public comment period by placing it at the beginning of the meeting and requiring a sign up sheet and time limits for speaking. Since the county will now publish detailed agendas, the public will be able to anticipate whether to sign up to speak, which wasn’t possible before.
“This will hopefully put everybody on a level playing field and put everyone on notice what they are going to be discussing,” Clampitt said.
Complaints over open government came to a head last month when nearly 40 people attended a commissioners meeting but were not permitted to speak.
Commissioners voted 3-1 at that meeting to quit paying the sheriff to feed jail inmates and instead buy prepared meals. The jail meals were a money-maker for the sheriff, bolstering his otherwise low salary, but was done off the books. The move to end the arrangement was seen as political, however, since it effectively lowered the sheriff’s take-home pay — and was done by a Democratic board of commissioners mere days before a new Republican sheriff took office.
Despite a packed meeting with crowds spilling into the hallway, Chairman Glenn Jones did not permit anyone in the audience to speak. Clampitt was at that meeting and was disappointed that commissioners would not accept public comment. At the next regular commissioners meeting, Clampitt asked the board to adopt a formal open meetings and public comment policy.
“They made the rules up as they went before. Now their feet can be held to the fire,” said Clampitt, who ran for commissioner but lost.
Ronnie Barker, who ran for county commissioner chairman in the May primary also on the platform of a more open and responsive government, said the new policy is a long-time coming.
“I think it is a step in the right direction. It is a shame it had to come to a huge boiling point to get something done,” Barker said. “They were forced into doing this by the people. It should have been done voluntarily.”
Despite winning the majority of votes on Election Day, Barker was narrowly beat by Jones due to a huge number of early and absentee votes in Jones’ favor. Barker said the issues brought out by challengers in the election have clearly gained traction.
“The commissioners are servants to the people of Swain County,” Barker said. “It is time people step forth and start bringing this stuff out.”
Commissioner David Monteith, the top vote-getter in the November election, was an advocate of the new policy and suggested some of the measures.
“The more we can keep the public informed, the better off we are. It is their government and we are supposed to be servants of the people,” Monteith said. “Informed people don’t create a problem, it’s the uniformed.”