We applaud County Commission chair Tan Smiley for his stated desire to see an end to personal attacks during county board meetings.
We applaud a citizen for standing up and stating emphatically that meetings of the Board of County Commissioners should be about county business, not personal differences and attacks.
Seems, however, these statements are a bit like practicing fire safety after burning down the house.
For if there was a foundation for allowing the county meeting room, the public podium and those five chairs in which the commissioners sit to become ensnarled in the din of personal attacks it was built by commissioners.
They own the atmosphere they have fostered in their meeting room and the sooner they take ownership the sooner it stops.
With the exception of the newly-elected Joanna Bryan, a historic winner as the only female ever elected by voters to the BOCC, commissioners have sat and quietly approved or participated in personal attacks, to the point of making accusations of crimes not charged.
Quietly approved because if commissioners sit idly by and allow one of their peers to adopt a scorched-earth policy on his way out the door, alleging crimes and launching into ad hominem attacks on other governmental entities and individuals with impunity, well those other commissioners approved.
And participated, in some cases, with gusto and the same venom expressed not only by some members of the public, granted every time extension desired to grind axes, but by a former commissioner who no longer cared who or what was left along the roadside as he bulldozed out of town.
Where, for example, was Smiley when his fellow commissioners were making a public piñata of a former Tourist Development Council director, accusing him and others of illegal acts that proved wildly unfounded?
Or when his predecessor as chair was alleging crimes by individuals that, again, were unfounded?
What did any of that have to do with county business? How did any of it promote statesmanship and professionalism Smiley said he hoped for during the last meeting?
While commissioners usually turn a deaf ear to the mere suggestion that other governmental entities might have some things right, the BOCC could go a long way toward promoting transparency and professionalism by tweaking its agenda.
As in actually presenting one.
Yes, the BOCC every two weeks sends out an agenda of what is coming up but the document reads the same save for those times when outside agency representatives or citizens request time for a specific topic.
Other than that, a county agenda has four or five broad categories – consent agenda, staff business, commissioners’ business, hear from the public – that permit no insight into what might be discussed at any specific meeting.
That is a disservice to all who the county represents.
A perfect example is the recent decision by commissioners to dismantle their own Economic Development Council model for another one.
Regardless of circumstances this is an issue, given we are talking taxpayer money, that should be before the entire public for its input.
This should not be sprung late in a meeting by one commissioner with other commissioners jumping on board the train with nary an opportunity for the public – commissioners’ employers as they too often forget – to weigh in.
And without public input or discussion, commissioners effectively shivved a man who was hired, moved across the country – remember the previous director didn’t live in Gulf County full time so he was of no use – and did everything asked of him and more.
Now, commissioners are telling this director that no, he is not terminated, but he is just working for commissioners in some unspecified role under the county administrator.
The BOCC decided they would hold a workshop with stakeholders on the issue, but given that it took eight months to schedule the last joint workshop with the city of Port St. Joe, the primary EDC stakeholder after the county, nobody should be holding their breath.
The hiring of a former commissioner to lobby for the county is also an issue that should be noted on the agenda to allow the public to weigh in.
And these are just two examples of commissioners putting out an agenda that does not remotely reflect the issues and discussions that will take place.
That is deliberately misleading the public.
The city of Port St. Joe adopts a simple policy – they put just about every topic that could come up during a given week on the agenda and unless the topic is listed it is not discussed.
This should be no great leap for the BOCC. County administrative staff could receive input from department heads and commissioners, and in particular the chair who sets the tone, on the issues of county business that must or should come before the BOCC in a given week.
That is the template commissioners then work from. The public can still offer input as desired, but unless it is county business – not a state attorney investigation or disgust with an exercise in free speech – they get their three minutes and off.
And by adopting an agenda and sticking to it the BOCC can avoid the perception that too many decisions, such as the EDC destruction, are discussed and decided out of the sunshine, out of the public’s eye.
The agenda for any public meeting belongs in theory to the public.
By failing to provide any detail about their bi-monthly meetings the BOCC turns that equation on its head and feeds the perception that government is a private, not public, club.
And that is an affront to every taxpayer and resident of this county.