Polk BOC continues to hear complaints about public comment

Published 10:00 pm Monday, September 15, 2014

by Leah Justice

The Polk County Board of Commissioners continues to hear objection from residents regarding its Aug. 4 decision to change the public comment portion of meetings.

Commissioners met Sept. 8 and heard from three residents during citizen comments, two of which objected to the new format and one who objected to other actions of the majority of the board.

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During the Aug. 4 meeting, the majority of commissioners approved changing how residents comment at meetings. Comments were previously allowed after each agenda item, then another opportunity at the end of the meeting to speak on non-agenda items. There was no limit to how long a resident could speak on each item, although it was recommended to keep comments timely.

The new procedure is for citizen comments to only be allowed at the beginning of the meeting with comments limited to three minutes. Commissioner Ray Gasperson voted against the new citizen comment procedure, while commissioner chair Ted Owens, vice-chair Michael Gage and commissioner Tom Pack voted in favor. Commissioner Keith Holbert was absent from the Aug. 4 meeting.

Virginia Walker said she doesn’t like the way the board has changed the agenda of when citizens speak. She said it’s like taking a car to a dealer to have it fixed and asking them to tell them what’s wrong with the car and how much it’s going to cost before they look at the car.

“At least the other way we could hear what you had to say and then make a comment,” Walker said. “That at least made sense to me.”

Renée McDermott said the majority has come close to shutting down citizen comments, telling the board, “mission accomplished.”

McDermott said at the last meeting drastically limiting citizen comments wasn’t enough for the majority. She spoke of the majority playing “government by ambush” in how it appointed consultant Robert Williamson as the county’s interim economic development director after adding extending Williamsons’ contract to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting.

“That meant that citizens couldn’t know it would be discussed at the meeting,” McDermott said. “Perhaps more citizens would have attended if they’d known. But the majority added this important, and very controversial agenda item only after the meeting had already started, after no one else could sign up to speak. That’s government by ambush.”

McDermott continued to speak of Gage motioning to appoint Williamson as interim economic development director, saying how the majority and Williamson knew well before the meeting and the agenda was prepared and amended at the meeting what they were going to do. She spoke of Williamson coming prepared with salary information from other counties, salaries of Polk’s past two economic development directors and a write-up of his own achievements.

“Does Robert Williamson have ESP?” McDermott asked. “Or was he in on the deception? The majority’s actions are government by ambush. It’s a breach of the public trust. It tells the citizens that you don’t want to hear what they have to tell you. And it’s just plain dishonest.”

Ray Christopher did not speak on the new citizen comment format but spoke negatively about the board majority’s actions since they were elected.

Christopher said since the majority had control of the board, a disproportionate number of competent county employees have left the county, naming agricultural economic development director Lynn Sprague, medical director Dr. Alison Owens and economic development director Libbie Johnson.

“The question is, what do these resignations of these respected and valued employees, tell us about your leadership style and are they indicative of your ability or your inability to unite the citizens of this county?” Christopher asked.

Christopher then said the majority spent $178,590 of taxpayer money to remove Ryan Whitson from his position as county manager. He asked how much additional taxpayer money does the majority intend to waste before they get around to appointing Marche Pittman (interim county manager) as the permanent manager.

“Every time I see the four of you conducting county business I’m reminded of the saying by Will Rogers and that is, ‘the problem with practical jokes is they sometimes get elected,’” Christopher said. “And from my view point the four of you are the sorriest joke every perpetrated on the good people of Polk County.”

When commissioners changed the citizen comment procedure on Aug. 4, chair Owens said when he was elected in 2004 he presented the idea of having citizen comments after each agenda item and that procedure was adopted at the Dec. 6, 2004 meeting. Over the last three administrations, however, Owens said, citizen comments have deteriorated to personal and political agendas.

Pack said on Aug. 4 that the previous meeting was a “zoo” with citizen comments being out of order and people slamming their fists on the podium and the chairman’s gavel banging repeatedly. Pack said the board is not getting a lot of constructive ideas and discussions are becoming political footballs.

Owens said it was time to get meetings back in order and said as chairman he has the authority to ask the sheriff to remove people from the room but he felt that would have been drastic.

Later in the Sept. 8 meeting, Owens did have resident and former county commissioner McDermott removed from the meeting.