Editorial: Open meetings should be goal of all boards

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 5, 2020

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It seems that every candidate for office promises to have an open door. They want to hear from their constituents on just about every issue.

Until they’re elected.

Then, it seems they only want to hear from the people who agree with them.

The winners of the county commissioner race (yes, they will likely be decided during the primary since only Republican candidates are running here) have a chance to make good their promises to have an open door.

They can start with the meetings.

To their credit, the county commission meetings are filmed and placed on the county website for everyone to see. That’s a big step in the right direction, one the towns could — and should — follow. It’s 2020 and, well, videos aren’t that difficult to make anymore. Put your meetings online folks. It will help keep your residents informed.

To their discredit, the public comment portion of the county commission meetings are not played on the meeting video. Why? According to County Attorney Ed Vogler, he once attended a conference and heard that one board had a problem with a man who used that portion of the meeting to basically advertise his business — meeting after meeting. Commissioners, at Vogler’s suggestion, decided that we shouldn’t see that. So they decided the public comment portion of meetings wouldn’t be shown on meeting videos.

I agree such things as advertisements and vulgar rants are not proper fodder for public comments; but to deny a resident’s right to be heard by perhaps hundreds of others because you’re afraid of an advertisement — that in my 40 or so years in the business has never happened — is taking it too far.

There’s a difference between editing and censoring. There are written rules for the public comments for a good reason. If someone breaks those rules, edit them out of the video. Better yet, show Vogler, who conducts that portion of the meeting, telling those people they’re out of line. That’s how a meeting works, why not show it?

But denying their right to be heard on a legitimate county issue is more like censoring. Post the public comments, folks.

Another trend in recent years among not only the county but the town boards is adopting a “consent agenda.” That sounds good on its face, but it is easy to manipulate. A “consent agenda” is a group of items the board members vote on in one vote. It may contain 15 items, but only requires one vote.

I’m not against a consent agenda, as such. But lately, especially at the county meetings, some pretty important stuff has been added to the consent agenda. Things like putting an alcohol referendum on the ballot. Things like borrowing millions of dollars to upfit a building on Farmington Road for the sheriff’s and health departments.

Sure, the board chair can allow a discussion on any of the consent agenda items, and normally asks board members if they have any concerns before the vote. But they don’t have to allow such discussions. The next board chair may not be as gracious.

A consent agenda can make a meeting end more quickly, but is that the goal? No, it’s intended to allow a vote on minor items handled by county staff that normally wouldn’t require discussion. It’s intended to allow a vote on minor items that everyone likely will agree upon.

Last month, the county’s consent agenda only passed on a 3-2 vote because one of those controversial items — cleaning contracts — was placed on the consent agenda.

Don’t use the consent agenda for major or controversial items. Don’t use the consent agenda to try to sneak something past the people. Use it for what it was intended for: minor, non-controversial items.

Mike Barnhardt is editor of the Davie County Enterprise-Record.