Commissioner Ward McDaniel began Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners by speaking about a new atmosphere for discourse among commissioners, staff and the public.
A resident later seconded that emotion to thunderous and sustained applause from a standing-room-only crowd spilling out of the meeting room.
The first meeting of 2014 brought a discussion about what had transpired in 2013, particularly the last few months when the temperature for discussion among commissioners and staff had reached boiling levels, including the calling of deputies at the end of the final emergency meeting of the year.
McDaniel, who began his yearlong tenure as BOCC chair, sought to navigate a different path from the outset.
Before the BOCC got down to business, McDaniel left the podium for the public lectern to say that a state law passed in 2013 had set parameters for conducting public meetings and the BOCC had in turn adopted rules for public input into meetings.
Saying that what he proposed was no reflection on past chairmen, only a reflection of that state law, McDaniel said, “This year will be different. I will conduct the meetings differently than they have in the past.”
He said he wanted discussion among commissioners, staff and the public to be “professional, kind and courteous” and said the meeting room was no place to air “dirty laundry.”
He said it was time to stop the contentiousness that has marked the recent months to “get some things accomplished.”
For Port St. Joe resident Elaine Lerch, who said she was spokesperson for many in the audience who in turn reflected a “wide cross section” of county residents, McDaniel’s words were welcome.
Lerch said she was there to speak about impressions and perceptions in the community and said the BOCC was viewed by many county citizens as “an embarrassment.”
She continued that “unprofessional” activities were evident to anyone attending, viewing or reading about the meetings. Comments and actions during meetings on Nov. 11 and Dec. 19 were particularly egregious, she noted.
Obvious bias had been demonstrated since the election of Commissioner Joanna Bryan in 2012, with county employees allowed to “speak disrespectfully to her without being reprimanded or stopped” and demeaning comments allowed to be directed at Bryan.
“Many citizens feel that the residents of Ms. Bryan’s district are being disenfranchised” as her efforts were thwarted, including changing county policy to “prevent her from doing her job,” Lerch added.
Lerch said part of the concern was a perception that the treatment of Bryan was due to her being female.
“If true, that is totally unacceptable,” Lerch said.
The board’s actions, Lerch said, reflected poorly on all commissioners and fed a negative perception of the BOCC.
“The image portrayed during these meetings casts demeaning and negative qualities on the entire county,” Lerch said, adding she did not believe commissioners “intend that nor want to portray” those qualities.
She also questioned the potential impact on economic development, suggesting that new businesses seeking to relocate to the county might have second thoughts when provided a taste of county government.
“We do not find this behavior acceptable nor do we, as citizens of the county, want this behavior to represent us to the wide audience …,” Lerch said. “We want this behavior to stop.”
She added that respect for the BOCC must be restored just as respect among individual commissioners and respect for all citizens must be restored and only the BOCC “can do this.”
“As county commissioners you have it in your power to perfect a code of conduct that we all can be proud of,” Lerch said. “We have just entered the new year – please view this as an opportunity for a fresh start and an opportunity to change the negative perceptions held regarding the Gulf County Commission.”
As Lerch returned to her seat, after urging commissioners to move meeting times back to evening, she was met by loud and long round applause from the audience.
Bryan and McDaniel each later thanked the public for the large turnout.
“I appreciate everyone being here and I also appreciate the support for open, accountable and representative government and I hope we will have that this year,” Bryan said.
The lone bone of contention during the meeting arose over the issue of the Americus Ditch and a letter from Ralph Rish of Preble Rish Engineers outlining a suggested path of action to address the project and its chronic problems.
Rish wrote that his company would fix, at its cost, five locations along the ditch to assess the best method of fixing drainage issues along the entire length. Preble Rish would also pay for materials the county would need to fix additional areas.
Bryan said she was pleased to see the response from Preble Rish, who engineered and inspected the original project, and thanked Rish for the information.
Rather than approve the letter, she said, staff and county attorney Jeremy Novak should use the letter as foundation for a scope of work so all were on the same page moving forward.
Commissioner Warren Yeager, an employee of Preble Rish, abstained and McDaniel and Commissioner Tan Smiley supported the motion.
Commissioner Carmen McLemore, who has been at odds with Bryan since her arrival on the BOCC, said he opposed waiting and that he believed Preble Rish might pull the letter if the BOCC could not make a final decision on Rish’s proposal.
Bryan said it was only prudent for the parties to craft a scope of services everybody could agree on before moving ahead. The scope will be brought to the BOCC during the Jan. 28 regular meeting.
Smiley spent his speaking time on a familiar topic – urging consolidation between the county and city of Port St. Joe on law enforcement and a building department.
Noting that he is “handcuffed” because much of his district is within the city limits, denying Smiley as many opportunities as other county commissioners, Smiley said his suggestions had fallen on deaf ears with city commissioners.
He said there was no reason to continue with a two separate law enforcement agencies and did not understand why building in the city required seeking permits in Bay County – the office location for the city’s contracted building inspector – when the county had a building department.
Repeatedly, he said he wished he was a city commissioner in order to force a “serious” meeting on consolidation.