Commissioners to Discuss “Citizen Budget Advisory Committee” at Tuesday Workshop

The county has released its agenda for the Tuesday, February 1, 2011, workshop, which begins at 9:00 a.m. at the county administration building.  At 9:30, the board has a number of items they’re going to consider and one of those is a discussion about the “citizen advisory budget.”  After finishing that business the agenda says the board will have a closed session at 11:00 a.m. to discuss “personnel matters.”

Workshops are usually where the details of a matter are worked out as the elected officials and staff exchange ideas and come up with a pathway to move forward.  Then if it requires a formal action, that is taken care of in the public meeting.   It was at a workshop a week or so ago, that the idea of forming a public committee to help the elected officials with the budget was discussed.  The matter came into formal view later that evening at the regular session during the public comments and when Commissioner Moore reported that the formation of a committee was discussed earlier in the day.

We find that if one wants to understand a matter, attendance at workshops is important as those are where the deliberations occur.  In addition, the meetings aren’t recorded so the public is unable to listen to a playback of the deliberations.

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15 responses to “Commissioners to Discuss “Citizen Budget Advisory Committee” at Tuesday Workshop

  1. “…the meetings aren’t recorded so the public is unable to listen to a playback of the deliberations.”

    I guess the ‘transparency’ promised in the campaign was just another campaign ploy. I would be easy for a commissioner to simply flip on a voice recorder and then post it to the county website. Or transfer it over to you, Mike, and you could post it right here.

    Many of us can’t make it to every meeting. If the County truly wants citizen cooperation and participation, they have to open up and share.

  2. Raoul that’s a good point. It would be so easy for the commissioners to just flip that switch and start the recording as they do for the formal meeting. If they can do it for one, why not do it for both as the workshop discussion is so much more important for understanding what our public policy-makers are thinking about doing and how they’re reaching their decisions. Just as with Elkton, by the time it reaches the commissioners meeting the decision has largely been sorted out and decided.

    The sprinkler situation is a good example. To hear/understand what was going on you had to hear the workshop session. Getting it from legacy media or blogs wasn’t going to give those really concerned a clear understanding at the level they needed. Yet there’s no recording, the minutes are insufficient, and are published too late to help anyway.

    It really isn’t that hard. We will say that Elkton is much worse at this. They were recording those workshops, and Mayor Fisonia stopped them so people weren’t able to review the tapes. (That occurred soon after they were forced to settle a suite in court.) We’re working on a project to start streaming the Elkton’ workshops and streaming them on the net.

    Commissioner Broomell campaigned on opening up the process and this one wouldn’t be that hard. Look at how fast the sprinkler decision was managed. While she argued for video broadcasts and that’s fine, why not just do the recordings for now. They could get it done quickly. Work it out at a workshop and then vote on it at a meeting. Then everyone could listen and understand the public policy making process here. That’s a good thing.

  3. Mike,
    How can we make this happen?

    There is nothing the commissioners, our paid employees, discuss either in open or closed session that should not be public record…verbatim. I understand that they need uninterrupted work time together. However, they should not be discussing or deciding anything that they wouldn’t want to share in public.

    It is a question of ethics.

    • Raoul we do think this one is a matter for someone to notice and we fully agree. It’s way too easy to do this. Just flip that switch just as they do for the formal board meeting where they mostly formalize the decisions they make in the unrecorded workshops. How hard would that be to do?

      Perhaps Commissioner Broomell since she wants to get the meetings video-taped perhaps she could become an advocate for this intermediate step as she makes progress on her campaign platform of sharing the video.

      It is so important to make these things easily accessible to the public and we bet Commissioner Broomell agrees on that. It just might be a different approach and her pushing of the the video is a good one, but in the meantime with so much going on as they’re just weeks into the new administration it would be good to have those recordings.

      We’ll work on an editorial and also write each of our commissioners urging them to take positive steps to enhance transparency. We’d suggest that you do the same and perhaps if enough people encourage them they’ll do it. There’s virtually no cost so there should be no objection from the Tea Party Element as they work to cut the county’s budget.

      Also coming to the county meetings and speaking up during the public comments section is a good strategy.

      It’s the right thing to do. Thanks for suggesting this and supporting the approach.

  4. Raoul,
    Make it happen by calling the commissioners. Get on record whether they support it or not. If they don’t, then write a letter to the editor and encourage other people to call them. Then attend the next public meeting and address the issue publicly before the commissioners. Commissioner Broomell has been looking into the costs of videorecording the meetings. I hope that we will be able to get something in place that works and is cost-effective. Maybe there are ideas that can be presented here that may work. The Cecil County Patriots videotaped its debates and put them on the website within a week or so, but we could only use 15 minute segments. The commissioners would probably want something much more professional to post on the county government website. I wonder if Cecil College or an area high school with a journalism or video department would work with the commissioners to do this? The county just needs to make sure we have someone reliable to do this at all meetings, and to post the recordings to the website expeditiously. Other counties do video their meetings.

  5. There may be confidential items dealing with personnel, that are dealt with in closed session, that legally can not be released to the public. There also may be times when litigation is discussed, when it would be against the county’s interest to make the record public. I don’t believe that the commissioners can vote on anything in a closed session.

    • Jackie we have no reason to believe that the commissioners aren’t following the guidlines in closing this meeting. We’re simply reporting what’s on the agenda. MD. Open Meetings Guidelines permit meetings to be closed for a few specific reasons, and the officials must cite the closure reason, something beyond merely stating closed for personnel matter. There are rulings on that.

      In Kent Co., the small weekly newspaper there, reports everytime the commissioners shut the door to the public and about 12 times in ten years they filed challenges with the Maryland Open Meetings Board. In many instances, they won those challenges. While in Cecil, our local paper has never had a situation where they felt they should challenge the public officials. Over in Harford their semi-weekl paper has filed and won cases too during the past decade.

      By keeping an eye on officials it helps to contribute to transparency in government, just as videos and audio do. Elected officials need to know that the public and the media (whether legacy or new) are going to hold them to the strictest standards of the open meetings act. It’s all we have to help keep people informed.

      We learned to use the few tools provide in the open meetings act and public records acts while covering Elkton and found it very valuable as we covered those stories. There were important pieces of news information unearthed there, that wasn’t available from watching the public sessions and those materials helped cover those stories.

      These things are valuable tools for media, new or old.

  6. If broomell has been ‘looking into the costs’, why doesn’t she present her findings?

    As she is so big on transparency, you would think it would have been in the works already. I believe it must have been just another campainy thingy that sounded good theoretically, but was not arrived through mental effort or through careful and thorough consideration.

    If there are issues to discuss that require legal confidentiality, then that portion could be censored. Everything else should be made public.

  7. Mike, I was responding to Raoul’s comment, “There is nothing the commissioners, our paid employees, discuss either in open or closed session that should not be public record…verbatim.” It sounded as if Raoul didn’t think that there should be anything confidential, but he now indicated that he realized that some things might need to be censored for legal reasons. I agree wholeheartedly with your statement that transparency is crucial to good government, and that except in a very few circumstances, everything should be done in the open.

    Raoul, the commissioners have a lot on their plate, and the new commissioners have only been in office for a few weeks. Commissioner Broomell will likely present her findings soon, but it is wise to have all the information available regarding options and costs before making a public proposal. If it were me, I would do the same, researching what other counties are doing, shopping around, and looking into other cost saving opportunities- educational partnerships, etc. If you have concerns or suggestions, you should contact her directly.

    • I have tried to contact her. No reply.

      It seems she has been ‘looking into it’ for a long time. It was part of her campaign agenda.

      In her response to the Cecil Whig of ‘Top Priorities as County Commissioner’, broomell wrote:
      “Top Priorities include addressing taxes, transparency, and planning.

      In order to effectively address our economy, we’ll have to stop doing business as usual in the County and implement accountable government and fiscal responsibility. Too many big businesses control our local politicians or the elected officials are representing their own interests. Televising commissioner meetings would be effective in revealing these conflicts and holding our public officials accountable. Conflicts of interest shouldn’t be tolerated!”

      Later she attacked Scott Mesneak’s report with her solution”
      “… A cheaper alternative is setting up voice-activated cameras and live streaming the broadcasts. I found this site (http://www.county.org/resources/library/county_mag/county/131/lights.html) very quickly and it shows how Smith County in Texas was able to affordably televise through live stream and they have 5 cable companies to coordinate. Franchise agreements deal with that issue.

      But the real benefit is that a permanent, complete record is kept of commissioner meetings which may be why the commissioners are not motivated to make it affordable. In fact, we probably could have purchased the voice-activated video equipment for the price of this five-year study.

      Diana Broomell ”

      There are several other instances of her advocating transparency and elimination of conflict of interest…all the way back into the primary.

      Does she understand conflict of interest?
      Has she been researching or just blowing hot air to get elected?

  8. Thanks Jackie. It’s contributes to the quality of governance when officials know that citizens and media (legacy, new or citizen journalism) are monitoring things and might take them to task on decisions. Thus, for example, when officials in Kent County know that they’re going to get a headline story each time the boards shut the door on the public, I’ll be they make that decision more carefully. Places where such decisions are never quesitoned probably become much more lax. Add to that in Kent County the fact that the small weekly there regularly challenges officials when they feel they haven’t followed the guidelines strictly and they write editorials about it too (as they win many of the challenges) and you know the decision is made carefully or otherwise they’ll go through the MD. Open Meeting Boards investigative process.

    When decisions are made in the full light of day (except in those few instances where rules allow otherwise) we’re all better off. While I suspect this one is appropriate, there is one we questioned. That was when the last board went behind closed doors for the lobbyist they’d hired on the deputies matter. That was wrong we believe. Many of the reaons they referenced in a form they use was seemed not to be supported by the rules.

    But if no one asks about such things, it’s easy to become lax.

  9. At last year’s budget exercise, a member of the Tea Party said he was starting to offer suggestions to help control county finances. His recommendation was cut Superintendent Schafer’s position as he would do the same work for much less. Yes, that was his suggestion. I think I remember it was Lobos that had that not so helpful recommendation. Do you remember that Tea Party idea?

  10. Bob, we do recall someone saying they were going to start offering solutions to help the county reduce costs, last year. Their idea was that they could do the Superintendent’s work for much less. We don’t remember who the speaker was. Perhaps Ron can provide some info.

  11. Since I have been pushing for the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, let me say this about that.

    The commissioners take budget information obviously from the staff, but while the staff may be excellent, they have their own biases. The budget information from staff is a recommendation to the commissioners as will be those from the citizens committee. As we know there are many special interest groups applying pressure to the commissioners and maybe even staff. The commissioners will have another source of information representing tax paying citizens as a whole, but the commissioners still will have to make the decisions. Remember this, the commissioners have no line item control over the library’s, sheriff’s, college or school boards budgets. The commissioners can only vote to accept or reject those budgets. They will certainly have more control over the citizen’s committee proposals than the before mentioned budgets.

    I have some lessons learned recently. I took on, before the election, a decision to determine if a $75,000 backup generator was needed for the county land fill septage acceptance station. I spent over 3 days researching and visiting the landfill on just this one item, which was basically a purchase order, RFP-11-07-55043. I drew up a report and sent it to Commissioner Hodge, since he was the one questioning the purchase. As an ordinary, interested citizen I could not obtain design information because since it was part of the bid, it is not available to the public; so my report was limited because I was lacking essential information. As of today the commissioners have not made a decision on this purchase. That exercise reinforced my desire for a citizen’s advisory board.

    Carl Roberts and I had discussed the citizen’s committee idea prior to the election and he believed that if such a committee was to be organized it needed to be under the commissioners. I thought that would put too much pressure on the members to conform to what the commissioners wanted, but my investigation of the generator purchase showed me that to gain needed information, the advisory committee had to be sanctioned by the commissioners, not an outside group looking in.

    Harford County has had this type of citizen’s involvement for some time. According to reports I have heard, it is a worthwhile organization. The county executive supposedly has a separate committee to assist him.

    Here are some numbers to clear one’s head and see the magnitude of the budgets. The Cecil County school budget is proposed to be $178,527,532 for fiscal 2012 with $68,350,618 from the county, $9,397,365 from the federal government, $98,286,549 from the state and $2,493,000 from other sources such as interest. The total county budget is proposed at $159,322,568, which is almost $20,000,000 less than the board of education’s proposed budget with revenues from all sources. So if the state dumps the $2.5 million to $8 million teachers pension fund on the county board of education and the state Maintenance of Effort law from 1984 will not allow the school budget to be cut without a waiver from the state, where is this money going to come from? The overall county budget, the school budget and the other budgets are being impacted by state and federal monies being cut; in some cases there are mandates to spend money, in a certain manner, and will remain regardless of the funding amount from outside of Cecil County sources.

    I was at the last school board budget meeting and 5 citizens, not involved in government or the media, were there; 5 citizens! So if the tens of thousand of Cecil County citizens are not interested in how their tax money is being spent, so be it. I care. And the 11 months I spend on my corner in Cecil County just wetted my appetite to get involved. This time where I have more of a direct voice in government’s actions and spending. Oh, I don’t want to be on the Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee, but I will be at the budget and commissioner’s meetings.

    Our county commissioners are going to have some very hard decisions to make and few citizens will like them. A Citizens’ Budget Advisory Committee is certainly not a cure all, but with the economic situation our county and nation finds itself, decisions will have to be made and the more information the commissioners have, hopefully, the more equitable will be their decisions on spending priorities.

  12. I would like to thank both Bob and Mike for inviting me to elaborate on what I said at last years budget exercise. At that meeting, Superintendant Schafer gave a presentation pointing out a couple of school districts that received far greater amounts of money per student and stated that those students tested out higher than our Cecil County students. His point was that if her were given a larger amount of money to run his school district, his students could also test out higher. This made me angry because I don’t believe more money makes our students smarter. I followed Mr Schafer after he was done with my own presentation calling for his firing. I never said that I wanted his job or that I would do his job for less. I said that I thought that the dept of education could be run on less money. I then told him, in front of the audience, that he should be concentrating on becoming creative with his teaching techniques and try to put a curriculum together that made students want to come to school rather than have to come to school. I don’t think that that is so far fetched. But it will require some thinking that is outside the box. Adding more money to failing program only adds fuel to the fire. My feeling is that curriculums should be created by teachers and the budget should be run by a CEO in a business like manner. I also feel that that CEO should be an outsider who has no personel relations with department employees. Good CEO’s operate strictly on a best buy for the buck type of mentality. Mr Schafer was a teacher and should stay with his specialty (and I’m sure that he was very good at it). What I don’t believe is that a former inmate should run the jail (and I mean that with all due respect since I can’t think of a better analogy at this moment). Since the Dept of Education is run with non-descretionary funds, my suggestions from outside of this operation carry no weight. However, a CEO would operate from within the department, thus giving him control of spending. Again Mike and Bob, I would like to thank you for allowing me to elaborate.

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