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Officials speak out on commission limiting privileges

A new requirement for permission to speak during Washington County Commission meetings is not sitting well with several county officials.
The resolution commissioners passed during their May 29 meeting revises the Rules of Procedure for meetings and adds a paragraph directed toward county officials and staff.
While commissioners and private citizens are allowed the right to address the chair and the board as long as there is no objection, officials and staff must now submit a request in writing prior to the printing of the monthly agenda in order to be heard.
“All officials and staff who desire to address one or more topics or concerns must submit a written report concerning the topic for inclusion in the packet, and the official or staff member shall confine his or her comments to written report submitted and questions by commissioners regarding the report,” the resolution states.
Rules Committee Chair Joe Corso said the recommendation was made in an effort to keep control of the meetings.
“It’s not at all restricting or restraining,” he said. “In an emergency, we can suspend the rules.”
Commissioner David Tomita called the requirement disrespectful to officeholders.
“We’re not following the established rules now on budget allocations and resolutions presented at meetings,” he said. “I think the chair has the authority to allow or disallow (a request to speak). Are we that special?”
Any legislative body controls its meetings, Corso argued.
“We don’t need to agree, we need to vote,” he said. “Are we that special? Yes.”
Commission Chair Greg Matherly said including officials’ or staff members’ concerns in the agenda packet would give commissioners time to think about the issues prior to the meeting.
Corso’s motion to approve the change in the Rules of Procedure was seconded by Commissioner Mark Ferguson. It passed in a 19-to-5 vote, with Commissioners George “Skip” Oldham, Mitch Meredith, Tomita, Ken Lyon, and Joe Grandy opposed.
In a later interview, Matherly downplayed the written report requirement.
“All I’d like is two lines saying, ‘I’d like to discuss (topic), will you recognize me,’” he said.
The main focus, according to Matherly, is to provide time for the commissioners to prepare. “Too many times, (issues) are brought up without the facts and we have to defer to the next month and bring it up again. This would help avoid that,” he said.
The requirement would not pertain to committee meetings, only to those of the commission. “And still, if anybody wants to be recognized and the commission doesn’t object, the person could speak,” Matherly said.
Assessor of Property Scott Buckingham thinks the new rule does not serve the public’s best interest.
“I understand implementing guidelines, but issues come up that affect the officials elected by the public,” he said. “You don’t take away people’s right to speak, and not always do I know seven days ahead of time what I’m going to say.”
Packets including the agenda, meeting minutes and resolutions are supposed to be in commissioners’ hands one week prior to the meeting. But the packets take time to prepare so the deadline for submission of a request would be earlier than that. No clear deadline is specified in the resolution.
Circuit Court Clerk Karen Guinn said she wouldn’t know whether to submit a request without seeing the agenda first, and at that point it would be too late.
“How does that make sense?” she asked. “It sounds to me as if they’re trying to shut everybody up.”
Guinn said the commission could easily approve a policy that could hurt the taxpayers or the official who may or may not be able to implement it.
“Yes, they could always rescind it, but why wouldn’t they want to hear the pros and cons first?” she asked.
Register of Deeds Ginger Jilton believes the relationship between the commissioners and Mayor Dan Eldridge is the root of the revision.
“I feel like there is such a hostile feeling between the mayor and the commission, and the officials are being thrown under the bus,” she said
Jilton said Eldridge used to hold meetings with county officials after taking office. “They were great, and we could discuss anything we wanted,” she said. “But three or four commissioners attended once, and we’ve never had another one.”
County Trustee Jack Daniels does not see the new rule as any big concern, though admittedly, “I don’t have a lot to say to the commission. Some people could take it personally, but I don’t,” he said.
County Clerk Kathy Storey chose to not comment.
Commissioners may be tightening the reins on the officials, but plans are under way to encourage more feedback from the public.
One of the changes Matherly wanted to make after being elected commission chair last year was provide a place on the monthly agenda for citizen comments.
“I still do,” he said last week. “One of the things I have not liked is citizens have no place to stand.”
Matherly said a formal speaking site, in addition to improved acoustics, are at the top of the list of renovation plans for the Washington County Courthouse.
“I fully intend to make sure that is accomplished when we re-do the commission chambers,” he said.
Matherly has also been working with Eldridge on moving the mayor’s offices to the courthouse, and said initial drawings are expected within the next two weeks.
“We will get into higher gear then,” Matherly said, adding another consideration is providing space for a full-time county attorney and related staff.