Polk heightens security at meetings

Published 1:20 pm Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Motion for board to pay for officers fails

Polk County Commissioner meetings will have a different feel as residents will now enter through a metal detector.

The meetings will also have two sheriff’s officers in the audience.

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Commissioners met Monday, Feb. 21 and approved implementing security measures by a 3-2 vote.
Commissioner chair Ray Gasperson, vice-chair Renée McDermott and commissioner Cindy Walker voted for the security. Commissioners Ted Owens and Tom Pack voted against the security.

Owens motioned for commissioners to pay for the security out of their monthly pay. That motion failed 2-3 with Owens and Pack voting for paying.

Sheriff Donald Hill said paying officers to attend meetings would cost the county $84 per meeting. Polk County

Manager Ryan Whitson said the county has the money to pay for security, although it was not specifically allocated in the budget for board meeting security.

“Although I don’t agree with it, I’m not criticizing your request for the sheriff to have deputies at the commissioners’ meetings,” Owens said. “With a possible homicide in Saluda this past weekend, with break-ins and drugs, I feel their time could be better spent than sitting at a commissioner meeting. Also, when I get to the point where I won’t allow a citizen of Polk County to state his/her opposing views, then I need to step down.”

Although the reason for the added security was never specifically mentioned during the meeting by commissioners, an incident following the last meeting where commissioner Walker said she felt threatened by resident David Moore after the board failed to appoint him to the recreation board was the reason for the timing of the security. Moore denies being threatening in any way.

“If I don’t pay attention to things that occur to me and make sure that I respond appropriately then I have failed in my responsibilities to myself and to you all,” Walker said during the meeting.

Walker said it is unfortunate that the county has to have a metal detector and it’s unfortunate that the county must have officers, “but we can’t un-ring the bell.” “It has occurred and I have a responsibility to pay attention to that.”

Gasperson said he’s been talking to the school of government about security and found out he as chair can request one or two deputies to be at meetings, but thought it would be better if the board voted on the issue.

The board disagreed on whether or not security is needed in Polk County with Owens and Pack saying having security will stifle residents from giving their opinions.

McDermott said she’s been coming to commissioner meetings for years and it’s not unusual to have deputies at meetings. She said in no way is the board trying to stifle residents from speaking their opinions. She said she has spoken with the North Carolina School of Government who was “aghast” that Polk County does not have officers at meetings, as most other counties do. On commissioners paying for the security, she said although it probably wouldn’t hurt herself and Owens, who are retired, it’s not fair to ask those commissioners who work and spend a lot of time working for the county to pay for officers out of the little bit of money they receive as commissioners.

Security is not only to protect commissioners, but to protect the residents, McDermott said, as she mentioned that both elected officials and residents who came to speak at a board of education meeting in Tuscon, Arizona were shot in recent months

“In this day in age what we see all over the country is the need for security in public meetings,” said McDermott.  “It’s not only to protect the commissioners but to protect the audience.”

Pack said he keeps hearing commissioners talk about the school of government, but Polk County is not like other counties. People in Polk County all know each other, Pack said, and commissioners and residents ought to be able to talk to each other as friends and neighbors.

Pack also said he couldn’t vote to spend residents’ money to protect commissioners from residents.

“Citizens pay taxes from their hard-earned money so we can operate the county,” Pack said. “I can’t vote to spend (citizens’) money to protect us from (citizens). If we’re in that much fear of (citizens), we should resign.”

New security also includes that commissioner meetings are handled like court proceedings, where no one is allowed past the lectern. Persons wanting to hand a document to commissioners will hand those to the clerk, who will present them to commissioners.

The new security brought some citizen comments both for and against the measures.

Keith Holbert said he has been attending meetings on a regular basis for the last 12 years and he has yet to see a citizen physically assault a commissioner.

“However, I have heard citizens verbally abuse commissioners and I have heard commissioners verbally abuse citizens,” said Holbert.

Holbert said the only times he remembers security being requested was once when the county wanted to use imminent domain on a citizen and another time when the board wanted to force zoning on an area.

“That being said, what is this board planning that the citizens will rise against?” asked Holbert.

But Margaret Johnson said intimidation and bullying are becoming all too common in the political arena. She said she applauds the board for implementing security.

“This kind of behavior is not compatible with democracy,” said Johnson.

Rickie McFalls said commissioners should pay for the security themselves.
“I think you’re throwing good money after bad,” McFalls said. “There was one incident. I’ve been coming to these meetings a long time. I’ve never seen any physical harm come to anyone.”

Elizabeth Garniss said the county wants commissioners to step and serve who are strong, passionate and committed, but how many people are going to step forward for this kind of a job? She said she supports voting for security.

Polk County’s next meeting will be held on March 7 at the Green Creek Fire Department at 7 p.m. The county plans to travel throughout the county every fourth month. With the new security measures, hand held metal detectors will be used at the meeting in Green Creek.