WATCHDOG COMMITTEE REPORT
Craven County Board of Commissioners Meeting
6 April 15
This was a very interesting meeting especially in that CCTA held a “Protest Demonstration” with signs and the whole bit on the street outside the County Administration Building before the meeting. The number of CCTA members participating was especially gratifying in light of the fact that it was Easter Monday, a lot of our members were spending time with family, and many were traveling to spend the holiday out of town.
Kathryn Blankley, Connie Hanna, Bill Poole, Nan Murdoch, Kim and Glenn Fink, Brad and Doris Cummings, Raynor and I (Hal) participated. Several of us had colorful signs. Bill Poole’s said , “We the People CONSENT to Open Government” which I thought was cleaver. Most of us took a negative approach as in “NO CONSENT AGENDA, please!”
We had conversations with folks in cars who pulled over to talk to us and with pedestrians who stopped to talk. A high point was when Commissioner Steve Tyson stopped to discuss our concerns with us and promised to try to alleviate some of them.
During the “Public Hearings” phase of the Commissioners’ meeting, I was the only member of the public who spoke. The hearings were on proposed changes to the Craven County Code of Ordinances. These ordinances concerned things like the Board of Adjustment to the Marine Corps Air Station Zoning Ordinance. It was fairly complex, and would require a lot of study to really be familiar with them. Another example is the proposed amendments to the Coastal Carolina Regional Airport Zoning and Height Control Ordinance. I thought sure General Tom Braaten would be there to explain, but he wasn’t. County Attorney, Jimmie Hicks, explained that these were routine changes required by changes by the General Assembly to state statutes. The last part of the proposed ordinance changes concerned “off premises” signs. I did not object to the content of any of these proposed changes, just that no one (including “stakeholders” and Commissioners) had had a real opportunity to study them. After all, last night’s agenda was 3/4 of an inch thick when printed on one side of each sheet of paper, and most of it was in small print. In addition, these proposed changes are complex and far reaching. They will affect local businesses and the military (Craven County’s largest employer). Thankfully, the Board took no action last night on these proposed changes so there is time for real study.
Next came the Petitions of Citizens. Several people spoke on noise problems, but Josh Humphrey gave an excellent petition on the ineffectiveness of the more than a quarter of a million dollars of taxpayer money the Board has spent on the US 17 Corridor Commission with no benefit to Craven citizens. He closed by saying we had gotten nothing from the Commission and it was time they got nothing from us! Well done, Josh.
Raynor petitioned against returning to the use of a “consent agenda.” She said that a tenant that had been repeated to her many times while she was growing up was “to not only avoid evil, but also to avoid the appearance of evil.”
She confessed that it had annoyed her (especially during her teen years) because she found it hard enough to keep herself straight. Doing that, plus worrying about what other people might be thinking about it, seemed like too much to ask.
As she got older, and hopefully wiser, she realized that a lot of her teenage scrapes and misunderstandings had come about because she hadn’t tried to avoid the appearance of evil; she just hadn’t given it any thought at all.
She reminded the commissioners that they’d said they didn’t want to use the consent agenda to hide anything or do anything underhanded. She said, “I believe you. But if you care what your constituents think, consider what they’re exposed to all day. What they see in the newspapers. Read on blogs. Hear on the radio, and see on TV. They see and hear case after case of ‘public servants’ doing bad things. Like Harry Reid’s saying, ‘He didn’t get elected, did he?’ when he was questioned about what he’d said untruthfully on the Senate floor.
Raynor closed by pointing out that, when you have the ability to do wrong and don’t avoid not only evil but also the appearance of evil, you might not be making the best choice. She asked that the commissioners not go back to the use of a consent agenda.
Kim Fink spoke on some things going on in education in Craven County that the Commissioners need to be aware of. The Commissioners were very attentive to her petition, and I believe, would like to hear more. Kim told about the resistance of the education professionals to the implementation of the Founding Principals Act. Because of this, the General Assembly is considering requiring students take a test on the same historical and civics facts about our county as immigrants are required to know to gain citizenship. Kim made it clear that the resistance she talked about is taking place at both the state and local levels.
Kim also mentioned that there is a bill proposal before the General Assembly which would make June Atkinson, PhD, Superintendent of Public Instruction, a voting member of the State Board of Education, and would make her the Board’s Chief Administrative Officer. She is presently on the Board, but does not have a vote. This change would be most unwise as she seems to be a primary reason for resistance to implementing The Founding Principles Act.
Legislation has also been introduced that would make the Superintendent of Public Instruction appointed instead of elected by the people. CCTA opposes this as well. We don’t like much of what June Atkinson does, but at least we the people can “hire” someone we think will do a better job at the next election.
Kim also asked the Board of Commissioners to support our request that the Craven County Board of Education members be elected the same way other officials of Craven County are elected. That is only by voters who live in the district they serve. (Board of Education members are currently elected county-wide in the general election.) Kim related how the idea for a change in election method had been rejected by the school board, and in doing so, they stated that election county-wide gave them more validity in making decisions for the whole county. Kim said that should feel like a smack in the face to the Board of Commissioners by insinuating that they don’t have validity in working on behalf of the entire county because they represent the special interests of their respective Districts. She stated CCTA’s position that this is a fallacy, and it will be better if both boards are elected by district.
Glenn Fink spoke against the consent agenda. He wisely acknowledged and showed appreciation for the facts that the Board has been very helpful in providing budget and other financial information on the county website, and facilitating the ability of citizens to petition the Board after the agenda is made available on the website. Glenn, like Raynor, expressed concern that adopting a consent agenda would be a big step backward in conducting open meetings. He asked the Board to look at the Board of Education meetings for a prime example of how a consent agenda can be abused such that citizens in attendance at their meetings hear no discussion of anything substantive about education in our school system. The citizens have no insight as to how the people’s business in education is being handled. It is cloaked in obscurity.
Glenn also spoke against the County owned in-patient hospice being considered by the Commissioners. He said he’s afraid that county staff time is being spent on it, but that the whole idea of government intrusion into a medical service that private practices can and should provide should be rejected.
I petitioned that our desire to have open meetings is at the heart of our objections to returning to the use of consent agendas. I again pointed out the simplicity of the NC General Statutes on meetings of public bodies and the equal simplicity of the Attorney General’s Guide to Open Government and Public Records. I suggested that the Board compare that to the complexity of the agenda for this meeting. An agenda of that size and complexity being available at 10:00 a.m. on Friday before an Easter Monday meeting of the Board is way too much for the citizens or the Commissioners to study in preparation for the meeting.
I also mentioned that the agenda contained a report on the security concerns at the Social Services building. This has been a hot topic at many previous board meetings, and the report was being presented at a time that many people would not be able to attend the meeting because of the Easter family holiday. That seems like poor timing if the Board really wants public participation on this matter.
Simply put, open meetings are very difficult to achieve because county staff overloads the Commissioners as well as the public with government intrusion.
In spite of that, this report can end on a cheerful note. The Board voted to remove the most egregious part of the proposal that says they may have consent agendas.
Although there were limitations on what can be in a consent agenda, there was a provision that would have allowed anything the Chairman of the Board of Commissioners or the County Manager (who is unelected) wanted included. Steve Tyson said he was uncomfortable with it (bless him), and the commissioners voted to REMOVE this provision before approving the permissible use of consent agendas.
CCTA Watchdog Committee Chairman