Changes Needed in County’s Charter
This month I am writing about some changes that I think we should consider for the newly formed Charter of Frederick County. Some of the procedural issues I see are a lack of communication and a lack of clear meeting agendas as well.
Councilman Billy Shreve and I have stated that we think there should be public comment at the beginning of the meetings of the County Council. A lot of people come to meetings to speak about various issues either on – or not – on a particular agenda item.
Why should we make them sit through 2, 3 or 4 hours of a meeting in order to give their comments? In this case, a lot of people just won’t show up since they may not be able to stay throughout the meeting.
Some government meetings allowed public comment at the beginning, but the standard seems to be set against allowing this. My opinion is – just as we did in the last Young Board of County Commissioners – that we allow public comment before and after each meeting. Anything less than that just tells taxpayers you really don’t care about their opinions.
Another issue I see that should be changed is that during the second reading of any piece of legislation, which is the public hearing, the Council is not allowed to answer specifics from people raising questions at the hearing.
While I agree there should not be an open dialogue, which tends to get the meeting off track and off topic, there should be answers from Council members to specific questions from public comments.
Currently, as you may have seen in the English as the official language public hearing, the room was full. We had a lot of public comment, yet the Council was not allowed (by Council President Bud Otis) to answer questions while the public was still in the room.
Instead, the room was cleared, we went on to another issue, then we were allowed to speak at the end of the meeting during Council comments after most – if not all – of the people in attendance had departed. This is useless and does not allow for open and transparent government, which is what we should be about.
Another change that should be made is that we should vote on the issue at the public hearing. This is when things like public comment are fresh in everyone’s mind, and when you can have the debate with concerned residents. As it currently stands, we vote at the third hearing, which could be as much as a month from the date of the public hearing. That makes it very difficult to remember all of the information gathered at the hearing; and one thing you lose, in particular, is the emotion that people had at that hearing. Even if you take copious notes, it’s still difficult a month later to capture all items of importance that the hearing displayed.
This last issue deals with having our own legal counsel and budget officer. As of now, we rely on the county executive to “allow” a county attorney who works for the executive, along with the budget officer, who also works for the executive, to give us information and legal advice.
As you may have seen with the Aurora situation concerning the sale of the Montevue Assisted Living facility and Citizens Nursing Home, we find ourselves in a predicament where the executive wants to sue Aurora and withhold their funding, while the Council may not. That places the attorney representing the Council (who works for the executive) in a very tough spot.
Although the attorney we have does an outstanding job, it would be far better if we had our own Council attorney, separate from the executive, advising us.
Same for the budget officer, if the executive doesn’t want certain budget items looked into, she simply could have the budget officer stall the answers to Council members until a few hours prior or even after a hearing. Don’t think that can’t happen, because it has, especially in the case of Council Members Shreve and myself.
These are just some issues I see that could be changed to make the process more open, and to let people know that they are heard. You have to keep in mind, we’re not elected forever, so how would we want a meeting to run if we were on the other side of the dais?