Elkton Town Meeting, August 11, 2010 — Twelve months ago Elkton’s political leadership pushed to take a giant leap into the 21st century digital age by streaming board proceedings on the Internet. It was going to make Elkton government more open and accessible to a larger array of people, supporting officials argued. Once they approved webcasting, the leadership moved on with tweeting and twittering and Facebook friends for the same purpose, allowing citizens to easily keep an eye on proceeding
Oh what a difference a year makes. Last night Mayor Joseph Fisona reversed directions, informing employees to discontinue the long-established practice of recording workshops. We discovered the about-face after asking for a video of the session so Someone Noticed could accurately quote officials.
No longer will interested parties be able to see workshop deliberations without showing up in person. That setback comes about a year after Commissioner Jablonksi attended a Main Street Conference in Chicago that focused on cyber-age methods for revitalizing downtown and pushed use of the latest social networking products. But there’s much more than using technology for officials are missing the basics on open government such as listening to citizens. Now there’s this situation that requires a person to attend a meeting if they’re going to be informed for minutes aren’t approved for the public until a month or so after the activities. We assume the regular board meeting isn’t affected.
Anyone at a board meeting in recent years knows that it’s rarely business as usual when the commissions are in session. Just about anything can happen from rewriting laws to cover earlier actions, lots of closed door meetings for vague reasons, verbal exchanges, strange decisions that raise eyebrows, and colorful blunders Then there was the election time detailing of a patrol officer to meetings to provide security, which continues.
They’ve had ongoing challenges with the streaming. One time a section containing a citizenjs comments was was missing from the web broadcast and when Someone Noticed inquired we were told that an equipment malfunction caused the segment not to be recorded. However, when we examined the original DVD, it was there. Just after the court decision, the town pulled all of its archived content off the official website, except for the most recent meeting. After we pointed that out, they editd the official page to say that part of the removed material was still availble on YouTube But at least Elkton twitters and tweets.
For perhaps two years Elkton has been mired in controversy after controversy that has found them losing a cluster of lawsuits, facing upset citizens, and confronting large unanticipated expenses. In one recent instance that resulted in a courtroom decision that the municipality exceeded its authority, the mayor declared that a “meeting had gone off course.” So he implemented rules that restrict citizen input until the end of a board meeting. That practice doesn’t allow the public to know what’s happening or provide input before a decision is reached, especially now that the workshops recording won’t be available. Commissioner Givens has objected to the practice of restricting public comment a few times, but it continues.
Someone Noticed did happen to notice that legal matters seemed to be of more concern to the political leadership at this workshop. When another nonprofit developer inquired about fee waivers, the mayor said, “We ran into problems with that. I don’t know if we can do that.” Preplexed officials looking at each, adding remarks while while the town attorney said we waive building permit fees all the time, you can do that. It’s when we waived the hook-up fee and permitted its transfer to another party that we got into trouble. Another legal concept of protected class had their attention too. As the Human Resources Director discussed Easton’s pension plans, they started talking about age discrimination out of nowhere. Commissoner Jablonski in almost whispered tone asked the attorney if something they did in Talbot County was legal as it concerned older workers. (the town doesn’t share documents it discusses). That caused the mayor to add to the subject. The attorney said he didn’t know how they got by with it. They went back to that theme a couple of times in lowered voices as a preplexed audience watched.
Municipal government is most efficient and makes better decisions when stakeholders are able to keep a direct eye on elected and appointed officials, while have information to participate in the process. While that has never been easy in Elkton, Mayor Fisona has just made it a lot harder through a recent cluster of decisions.