Congratulations to County Commissioners Louise Gulyas and Virgil Shockley for doing the right thing this week. They were right to vote against a measure giving the commissioners further abilities to decide matters privately.
Unfortunately, the majority of the commissioners outnumbered Gulyas and Shockley, and all the other folks who actually think government policy and operational decisions should be made and debated in public by elected officials.
An ordinance approved this week said, “The County Commissioners, in exercise of their executive powers, shall take such administrative actions that they deem necessary, to create, change, discontinue or abolish County offices and departments and to remove or assign additional functions to such offices and departments,” it reads. In a memorandum, Attorney Sonny Bloxom said “In order to clarify that the County Commissioners have the authority to establish/reorganize County departments/office, the County Code should be amended to incorporate the language from the State law which specifically grants this authority to the County.”
On the surface, this seems innocuous, but it’s not. This expands the commissioners’ executive powers, meaning they now have the ability to discuss even more behind closed doors than they do already.
Sure, the commissioners are within their legal right to alter the blueprint of government, but officials interested in an open and active government would not vote for this matter. That’s the problem with how things are run in the county government. These folks prefer to manage government operations away from the public eye. The core of most business is conducted privately under the guise that it’s either personnel matters or critical to ongoing negotiations of some sort. The list of excuses is as long as it is misleading.
Even when government matters are discussed publicly in Snow Hill, the outcome is often orchestrated and already determined behind closed doors. It’s obvious and it’s been this way for years, and there’s no sign of change coming any time soon with the current board. This legislation surely confirms that in black and white.
This code addition was the direct result of an independent body ruling the county violated the Open Meetings Act in discussing the consolidation of three county departments into one privately last year. The commissioners felt this was a personnel matter only. It was discussed privately, they say, because there was uncertainty as to which employees and departments were going to be impacted. An independent state board that had no stake in the matter disagreed.
For at least the last 15 years, we have been hard on the commissioners on this transparency issue, and we will not stop until we are proven otherwise. On nearly all county mailings and letterhead, there’s a line at the bottom of the page reading, “Citizens and Government Working Together.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Whether they like it or not, warranted or not, most feel the county operates in a bubble and conducts most of its business out of the public arena. The commissioners who said only the media thinks this is the case are mistaken. In this case, we believe the perception is the reality. Clearly, based on this week’s vote, the commissioners have no plans of changing the way they make decisions.
The commissioners do have an immediate opportunity address their critics. They can at a minimum begin videotaping meetings to encourage participation among the citizenry and promote an active, open and responsive government. If the commissioners do not move forward with televising their meetings, or at least publicly discussing the issues associated with that, they are basically saying the status quo is just fine with them. We hope that’s not the case and they prove us wrong.