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Wednesday, 21 October 2009 19:31

Robust citizen input vexes public officials

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Johnnie Cure said she never expected to become a local celebrity when she started speaking up during the public comment period of Haywood County commissioners meetings.

Typically taking the county to task over what she perceives as excessive spending, Cure has become a regular fixture on the front row of county meetings in recent months. As a result, she gets primetime on the county’s government access channel where the videotaped proceedings are aired repeatedly in the days following the meeting.

“People I don’t even know will say ‘Good going,’ ‘Thank you,’ ‘Glad you are standing up for us,’” Cure said.

While he can’t hold a candle to the number of Cure’s appearances, Ted Carr gets his share of street compliments following meetings where he speaks out.

“I am surprised at the number of people who say ‘I saw you on the commissioners meeting. You made some good comments,’” Carr said. “A lot are people I wouldn’t expect to be paying attention but who watch it quite religiously.”

The barrage of public comment — both the volume and repetitiveness — has tried county commissioners’ patience over recent months, however.

“Rumor has it they want to move the public comment session to the end of the meeting, which would require common citizens to sit there for the whole meeting before we have the opportunity to speak,” Cure said.

Carr said he hopes the commissioners won’t change the format, either by moving comments to the end of the meeting or by taking them off the air. If they do, it will be perceived as trying to stifle the public, he said.

“I think it would hurt the community. The community wouldn’t get the impact of what individuals have to say,” Carr said.

But commissioners say they have no intention of changing the meeting format.

“Everybody has a voice and should be heard,” Commissioner Bill Upton said. “We aren’t trying to suppress that. I feel like we are very open. I think this board has been very patient.”

Those who are regulars during the public comment period say they aren’t purposely grandstanding or filibustering.

“What is being expressed are legitimate comments that do have merit,” said Bruce Gardner, part of an organized grassroots movement called the 9-12 Project.

Gardner said shifting the public comment period wouldn’t silence them.

“It wouldn’t stop me,” Gardner said. “But it would lose some effectiveness. All the good ideas don’t generate from the front of the room anyway. We elected these people and need to interact with them.”

Cure thinks any move on the commissioners’ part to shift public comment to the end or even take it off the air would be perceived as stifling public comment.

“I think I am getting on their very last nerve,” Cure said. “They want to shut us down, turn us off, they want to reduce our exposure. They don’t like us. They do not want to held accountable. They don’t want to be asked any questions.”

 

Local activism, national movement

The recent outpouring at Haywood commissioners meetings — centering around fiscal restraint — is a local manifestation of conservative activism witnessed nationwide since the loss of power by Republicans in the last election. With the national Republican Party struggling to redefine itself, the social issues that had galvanized the party for the past two decades are being traded in for economic talking points.

“The Republican Party is in a bit of an idea vacuum and leadership vacuum,” said Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at Western Carolina University. “Instead of coalescing around a national leader, you are seeing this bottom-up activism.”

Ted Carr, a Haywood County Republican, said the commissioners are “caught in the firestorm.”

“Nationwide, citizens feel like they aren’t being heard,” Carr said while speaking to the board during its public comment period this week.

Linda Bennett also drew a comparison to national movement when speaking to commissioners last month.

“Over the past several weeks and months, we have seen the town hall presentations on the TV where people have had a lot of passion,” Bennett said. “I think you have also seen record numbers in your courtroom you haven’t seen it the past. They are here for a reason.”

 

Accommodating despite the costs

Haywood County commissioners’ approach to the recent wave of public comments has varied. In general, they are polite and accommodating, listening intently and often taking notes. They usually devote a portion of the meeting to addressing concerns raised during public comment, and have even assigned county staff to prepare PowerPoints and compile timelines to address recurring points of contention.

“We are trying to be as transparent and open to the public as possible,” Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said.

Nonetheless, commissioners have shown signs of aggravation, witnessed by an exchange between Kirkpatrick and Cure at a county meeting this week.

“Ms. Cure, I am never going to be able to answer all your questions for you to your satisfaction,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick has pointed out that the cost of airing public comments costs all the taxpayers.

“The more we televise, the more cost that is to the county,” Kirkpatrick said. “We would televise everything we did if it didn’t cost. But it does cost us money.”

Despite concerns over cost, commissioners said they have no plans to discontinue public comment as part of the televised meetings.

“I don’t want to deter the public from seeing what people have to say on television,” Kirkpatrick said.

Haywood County is one of the few counties in the region that tapes and televises their meetings. For those who don’t have cable, a copy is placed at each library and can be watched online. Commissioners even tape and air their work sessions in addition to regular meetings.

“We are the most open board by far. We have taken to televising work sessions,” Commissioner Upton said.

Cure questioned just how much the public comment really costs, however. The cost of actually airing the meetings is the same no mater how long they are. The added expense is related to the filming, done by a private video production company that charges $175 an hour. Assuming public comment takes up an hour at each meeting — although it is often half that — it comes to less than $5,000 for the whole year to televise the public comment portion of the meeting.

 

Who is listening?

Haywood County commissioners have become visibly irked that the entourage present at the beginning of their meetings dissipate rapidly following the public comment period and have all but evaporated by the midway point in the meeting. Often later in the meeting, county commissioners take up the issue raised during public comment or provide the information that the critics had been seeking. But by then, they are gone.

During the public comment period at a meeting two weeks ago, county commissioners were asked for a copy of the legal settlement brokered with a landowner suing the county over its enforcement of erosion laws. The county had brought a copy to the meeting in anticipation of such a request. Critics of county spending had previously criticized the legal costs incurred as a result of the suit. The county asked the speaker to come up during a break and get the copy of the settlement, but the individual left without the copy — a point that didn’t go unnoticed by commissioners later in the meeting.

“The settlement offer that they asked for, we have a copy of here, but they have left,” Commissioner Mark Swanger said, then turned to the camera to address the TV audience. “If you are listening to the broadcast, they are available to pick up.”

Commissioners have also shown irritation when the same points are raised again and again, even after they have been addressed. Cure has repeatedly advocated for privatizing the county trash business and during one public comment period accused the county of not seriously examining the option.

But Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said the county had indeed talked about it.

“The majority of people here tonight got up and left after they made their comments. I was hoping after they left they would at least look at our meeting on television to see what we were talking about, but evidentially y’all didn’t do that,” Curtis told the audience during one meeting last month.

The point hit home again at the county’s meeting this week. County staff had prepared a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation in direct response to a recurring public comment.

“Unfortunately we have no one here that normally attends the public comment periods,” Kirkpatrick said, looking around the meeting room that was empty except for two local reporters. “The county is trying to be responsive and put the information out there for the public to hear, and it is disheartening sometimes when no one is here who had asked the questions.”

The meeting had nearly hit the three-hour mark, and given the empty room, Kirkpatrick suggested postponing the presentation until the next meeting. The presentation would have detailed how the county does its purchasing, be it supplies or contracted services. The purpose was to lay out the process so local businesses and contractors could hopefully snag a piece of the county’s business.

“I think there should be a priority given to local businesses whether it is goods or services,” said Bruce Gardner, who twice brought up the issue during public comment periods, recommending a crash course to help local businesses navigate the county’s procurement process.

Cure said it is unreasonable to expect the public to sit through three-hour meetings, even longer sometimes, when they have jobs and families to attend to.

 

Lengthy criticisms, lengthy answers

Some meetings see much heavier comment than others. On Sept. 20 a half a dozen members of the public spoke up. Topics were varied, but all focused on the common theme of fiscal restraint.

“They are spending my money, our money. We have given them a credit card with no limit,” Cure said.

Speakers have criticized the county’s efforts to harness methane, a byproduct from decomposing trash. The county has been condemned for its recent propensity for landing itself in expensive lawsuits. Commissioners were even chastised for not attending a 9-11 memorial held on the courthouse steps.

“None of you showed up,” Al Goodis told commissioners. “Doesn’t anybody care?”

Clearly offended, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said he did care but didn’t know about the memorial in advance and was out of town.

Often the commissioners’ response to comments takes longer than the public comments themselves.

“Their rebuttal is lengthy,” Cure said.

But Kirkpatrick says it is necessary. Otherwise it appears the county isn’t taking the public’s concerns to heart if they merely listen and don’t respond. So the commissioners have taken to keeping a running list of the grievances brought up during public comment session and then addressing them one by one following the public comment period.

While presented as explanations, they sometimes come across as the last word by the county.

“Personally I am not looking for an immediate answer. I would rather have a studied answer to a serious question,” Gardner said.

 

Clearinghouse or bottleneck?

In addition to the surge in public comments, the county is also facing a significant volume of public record requests by the speakers. In response, commissioners plan to adopt a written request form for any county documents being sought by the public.

County Manager David Cotton said a clearinghouse for public record requests would solve the problem created when the same person makes the same record request to multiple county employees.

“Had we known, we would have been able to answer once rather than have five or six different county staff answer the same question five different times,” Cotton said.

The written requests would be funneled through the county’s public information officer.

Cure, who frequently requests county finance documents to track county expenses, opposes the idea.

“I believe this protocol to go through an information person is going to be a bottleneck,” Cure told commissioners.

In addition, county staff have been directed to stop compiling information in a specific format, such as spreadsheets, and walking people through the information they request.

“You don’t need to spend special time preparing special documents,” Kirkpatrick said at a meeting two weeks ago.

“Because there’s no end to it,” Swanger added.

Cure said she prefers to go sit down with Julie Davis, the county finance officer, who takes the time to explain the county budget documents.

“She welcomes me to come into her office,” Cure said. “She is a dynamite communicator.”

But Kirkpatrick said it is taking too much time.

“There is not necessarily a requirement she speak to you about everything. All we are required to do is provide the information to the public. She bends over backwards to try to accommodate you,” Kirkpatrick told Cure.

Cure said the budget documents are written in a finance code difficult for a layperson to understand, however.

“It is not an issue of IQ, it is a question of the language. I would bet you lunch you can’t understand it either,” Cure said. Cure said she would have to hire a finance person to explain it to her otherwise.

“You may have to,” Kirkpatrick responded.

“So you are saying I will not be able to sit with her and talk with her?” Cure asked.

“What we are saying is we are having an abuse of that. We can’t have the staff spending several hours of their time at taxpayers’ expense to explain things to certain members of the public,” Kirkpatrick said.

Swanger said it is preventing county employees from performing their primary duties.

“We would have to hire extra people and you would be one of the first people chastising us for that expense,” Swanger told Cure.

Al Goodis, who’s become a regular speaker at meetings, suggested the county scan all the paperwork that passes through its hands over the course of a day and put it on the county’s Web site with a searchable database. Along with it, the county should provide a glossary of terms used by government bureaucrats so the public can keep up.

“I feel like you should be trying to help us save our money,” said Goodis.

“We are trying to be as transparent as possible and provide as much information to the public as possible so they can understand it,” Kirkpatrick said. “We do value your public comment, but we cannot make everybody happy.”

Putting the requests in writing serves another end goal: giving the county cover when the information request is met. The person who requested the documents will have to sign for them when picking them up, giving the county cover should they be accused of not complying.

“They come in here and ask the same questions over and over. We have already provided most of the information they ask for, but they keep asking for it,” Commissioner Skeeter Curtis said during one recent meeting.

While the new method of requesting information appears likely to become county policy, commissioners have backed off from any idea to alter they way they conduct the public comment period.

Cure said it would have been a bad move politically, particularly with three of the five commissioner seats up for election next year.

“They will nail the last nail in their coffin if they cut the public comment out. It is a death wish,” Cure said.

As for Cure, she doesn’t plan on running herself.

“I’ve been asked, but I will not do it. My place is at the podium,” Cure said. “I am going to ask questions for a long time.”

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