The Gulf County Board of Commissioners should reconsider their decision to change regular meeting times.
This past Tuesday commissioners convened at 9 a.m. ET instead of what had been the routine 6 p.m. ET for their bi-monthly regular meetings.
Citing a host of variables, commissioners decided last month that morning meetings made a lot more sense.
They noted that the Board of County Commissioners to the west and east, Bay and Franklin counties, held their meetings during the daytime.
Commissioners suggested a savings from overtime not paid by staff forced to work into the evening twice a month and utilities.
And, they don’t really see that many people at night so why are they trying to accommodate the public, which is paraphrasing but not far off the discussion.
Two commissioners suggested an alternative, a phase-in schedule for 90 days that would have the BOCC rotating – the first meeting of the month in the morning, the second in the evening.
But all those pros lack heft.
What another county does is beside the point. I believe parents are famous for the line “What if so-and-so was jumping off a cliff. Would you jump?”
Any savings should be minimal – key employees needed to be present at BOCC meetings should by and large be exempt, meaning salaried in some form and not subject to overtime. That’s a staffing issue.
And, regardless, the county is hardly the lone entity, private, public, non-profit, having to do more with less, so proper scheduling would resolve any problems concerning hours.
Considering operation, based on building size and hours of operation, dictates that maintaining utilities at a level similar to school buildings; that seems a minor expense.
What it would appear to be, and government and politics remain perception-borne, is another way for the BOCC to mute the public.
The BOCC, unfortunately, does not have history on its side.
From changing the order in meetings when public comment could be offered to monitoring a time limit, based on advance request to be on the agenda, to having requests for public input come solely through the chairman, the BOCC has seemed less than embracing of public comment.
On issues of particular controversy – for example, moving highways, county-wide voting, time zone changes, RV ordinances, the Gulf County Tourist Development Council, the city of Port St. Joe – commissioners have expressed something of a hostility to public comment.
For example, during the debate about putting the time zone question to non-binding referendum – a request from a high school government class –Commissioner Carmen McLemore suggested the solution was walling the county off at the White City Bridge, where the time zone changes.
That’s just one example among many.
Commissioners also have no reservations about special meetings, held on the shortest possible public notice on issues large and primarily small.
So, at this time, given that history, commissioners should be none surprised, and in fact it was mentioned during the special meeting, that there are skeptics about commissioners moving all regular meetings to the daytime.
These are difficult times, two paychecks is hardly enough for some and not remotely enough for far too many.
The need to work, in a county that has an unemployment rate, which only counts those still trying to find work, near double digits and local job creation currently at a near standstill, is an essential part of day-to-day life for most.
Consider the difficulty of trying to arrange for a 9 a.m. doctor’s appointment, let alone to sit through a County Commission meeting in hopes to speak at the very end for three to seven minutes – maybe more if commissioners vote to keep you up there.
That, from here, is why no public taxing authority should be in the business of holding meetings when the public is less likely to be able to attend. School Board, other counties, all of them, would be more in the sunshine if they were held after dark.
The point is to facilitate in any way possible public participation. Because less than 100 percent of eligible voters vote we should stop holding elections?
More importantly in Gulf County, there is the RESTORE ACT and the potential for tens of millions of dollars to come into the county.
This can not be overstated: for Gulf County the RESTORE ACT represents a potential lifeline that the county can not afford to mistreat and thrash about as it did with the BP money sent via the Gulf County Tourist Development Council.
What happened under the auspices of this BOCC was, an independent audit found, brazenly lacking in checks and balances.
So considering how to spend this windfall called RESTORE is not for a committee led by a county commissioner, Bill Williams, who, regardless of his expertise in RESTORE, will not even be in office, will not even be at the table, when the BOCC must make the final decisions on how that money is spent.
And, who was, a central player in the TDC debacle.
These are community decisions. And the BOCC has now made it more difficult for the community, the public, the BOCC’s employers, to be present and heard.
This is a time, more than ever when the BOCC must set an example of inclusion, not exclusion.