Editorial: To Help Citizens Participate in Local Government, Publish Workshop Agendas

After watching largely predictable events unfold at Wednesday’s board meeting, we’ll repeat a suggestion we previously made for the Mayor and Commissioners.  The lack of public awareness about important items under discussion creates a problem for the board, which is a point former Mayor James Crouse made as he, along with anyone else in the public, tried to understand some precedent setting board actions. 

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One would assume the elected officials want to make sure they are receiving public input throughout the time a course of action is being examined.  Having verifiable facts, in addition to a range of views for consideration, produces better decisions by the political leadership.  But Elkton creates significant challenges for stakeholders hoping to offer constructive comments or  simply trying to stay informed.

At an important workshop last week  substantial town business was discussed.  That included a proposal to transfer waived fees between parties, something the town had never done before.  Also the idea of creating a new blight control strategy was introduced as a way to frame the request.

Here’s how Elkton’s published agenda informed people about this new precedent setting policy.  It simply announced the time of meeting and that is it.  Once a workshop starts  anything (and we mean anything) can be discussed, but citizens have no way of knowing what the elected leadership is considering.  Glance at the Chesapeake City agenda below to  see how helpful that municipality is at informing citizens.  It provides a detailed workshop agenda. 

At workshops commissioners typically get details on proposals, ask questions, and decide how they’re going to vote on an issue.  Unless something most extraordinary happens, they will simply cast their vote at the monthly meeting.  Citizens won’t get a chance to comment until after it’s over.

That’s precisely what happened Wednesday evening.  The audience heard something of importance being enacted but there wasn’t enough information in the pre-scripted proceedings to figure it out since the details had been settled in the workshop.  So wait the citizens did as the mayor used his gavel to enforce order in the restless audience.  That is  until it got to the public section where the gloves came off for unscripted action.  The public, not holding back, had loads of pointed questions.  Plus the commissioners started challenging the public, which included respected former municipal and community leaders.  By-the-way, this is all something  we’re too familiar with for the same thing happened when three members of the board tried to let a developer have public land at Elk Landing.

After the commissioners made the decision earlier and informed professional staff what they wanted done, the nature of the regular meeting was predictable, except for officials engaging people in debate.  That one surprised us a little!  It would be so much better for municipal government to put lots of sunshine on tasks.  If the public disagrees once that is done, you’ll at least know what they’re thinking and have the opportunity to consider other viewpoints before it’s a done deal. Also the public won’t be able to say they weren’t informed.  All this seems like strong plusses to do something that is so easy to implement.  But we guess the commissioners never though of this improvement opportunity or this outcome. 

We once again encourage the political leadership in Elkton to start publishing workshop agendas.  It’s easy to do, it opens up the political process, is ideal for good government, and just makes sense.  By-the-way, to raise a second point, why not allow citizens comments at these meetings?  By-the time they’re allowed to speak in Elkton, the issue is decided and usually over with.  That just creates problems for everyone, including the town board.

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2 responses to “Editorial: To Help Citizens Participate in Local Government, Publish Workshop Agendas

  1. You mean you dont know. Since you have not figured it out I will make it simple. They dont want you to know what they are doing. simple ok

  2. Fred:

    I’m not sure about that. I hope they just hadn’t thought this through and considered the importance of taking a more logical, organized approach to things.

    It could be that there is a cost-benefit for the town. But it’s hard to tell from listening to the recordings of the meetings and the public comments of the officials. If they took, a more reasoned and analytical approach, they could have had that data in hand to help make the appropriate decision and to also justify it in an appropriate sort of way. But the way it unfolded, you won’t know about the quantifiable public benefit. But you certainly know about things that speak to not doing it, such as the regulations, which don’t permit a parking lot in that area and the fact that the town has never allowed fee waivers to be transferred between parties. Such an itemization of the pros and cons so political leaders can make informed decisions based on data would be a good thing.

    In order to be more analytical and thorough, have the staff analyze the pros and cons of a situation and have them provide written recommendations. Staff will examine it more professionally since they bring certain skills and knowled to their jobs, that the politicans don’t have and aren’t expected to. Then the politicans can put their special touch on the reasoned suggestions, but at least they’ll have hard, thought-out data to help them make the political decision or to justify it.

    There are many examples from the past couple of meetings. Commissioner Jablonski and Mayor Fisona kept saying that it was going to be costly for the town to demolish the structure and used that to justify the $150,000 waiver. The bldg inspector had estimated it could be removed for $30,000 in one meeting. A citizen pointed out that the town regulations allowed them to condem a structure and that them makes the owner pay.

    As for keeping people informed. I just dont think they’ve thought about it. But surely they have now after what happened at that meeting. Beside it would be too easy to do and it would help them politically too.

    Whatever the case, they certainly took the upcomign political season, which was already heating up, and got it more ramped up.

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