Cutting off the sunshinePublished 4:54pm Thursday, December 27, 2012
To the editor:
It didn’t take long for the new County Commissioner majority to pull the blinds of darkness on what used to be Polk County government in the sunshine.
During their very first meeting, Commissioners Gage, Owens, Pack and Holbert changed the Commissioners’ Rules of Procedure to make it harder, sometimes impossible, for the Public and the lone minority Commissioner to have notice of what will be considered at Commissioners meetings. These devastating changes were not highlighted or listed in any way. The document had a 2011 date on it, making it look like no changes were made.
Two years ago, when Commissioners Owens and Pack returned to the Board of Commissioners (“BOC”), they brought back their ploy of putting items on agendas with vague or misleading wording such that others couldn’t figure out in advance what would be discussed. When asked what the agenda items were about, they’d refuse to say before the meeting. Even the County Manager and the Clerk to the Board were left in the dark.
In addition, Owens and Pack would propose that items be placed on the agenda after the meeting had already started, with no time for anyone else to research the matter. Often accompanying such last minute agenda additions were a crowd of people they’d summoned to the meeting, supporting the item and demanding immediate action. Citizens who might be opposed to the item would have no opportunity to say so. And that was exactly the goal.
We started calling their tactics “government by ambush,” and they certainly were.
In response, I proposed two additions to the Rules of Procedure: (1) “Any item placed on the agenda for open session must be accompanied by a description of the topic sufficient to put staff, Commissioners and the public on notice regarding what will be discussed. If that description is not provided, the item shall not be included on the agenda.” and (2) “An [agenda] item should not be added later [than 5 pm on Tuesday before the next BOC meeting] unless it is considered an emergency or time sensitive by the Chair or the County Manager.”
By adopting these rules, we restored government in the sunshine. But these good rules were not destined to survive the recent election.
The first rule, about clearly describing agenda items well before the BOC meetings, was eliminated in its entirety by the new majority. Now, citizens and the minority Commissioner won’t be able to know in advance what important issues might be discussed, and decided, at any BOC meeting.
The second rule, about only emergency matters being placed on the agenda at the last minute, was changed to say that anything can be placed on the agenda without prior notice as long as it is approved by the Chair or the Vice Chair. Those agenda items won’t be published even a minute before the meeting starts. There will be no advance notice to the public, or the minority Commissioner, at all.
Government by ambush is once more the order of the day, thanks to the new BOC majority.
- Renée McDermott