The County Commissioners do not allow public comment at their meetings. Sure, in public hearings and in rare instances like this week’s discourse on slots at Ocean Downs, people can stand up and be heard. However, contrary to nearly all other governments in the area and state, there is no time allocated at each meeting for citizens to speak. That’s the facts and that’s the way most of the commissioners want it.
Some commissioners said last week it’s that way because it would not be right for any ordinary citizen to just stand up and talk about whatever they want at meetings. Additionally, it would be wrong, some commissioners say, for residents to simply question them about something they are not prepared for publicly. That philosophy stinks of superiority and righteousness, and the absurdity of that reasoning is startling. What’s even stranger is Jim Purnell, the commission president and longest tenured official on the board, is of the belief residents can speak at meetings whenever they like. That’s clearly not the case. Clearly, Purnell is either living in denial or is clueless as to what happens in Snow Hill. It’s disturbing whatever is the case.
Local residents have been trying for years to speak at meetings, but have been rebuffed repeatedly by staff and on some occasions the commissioners. Additionally, after being told they would not be allowed to address the commissioners, some are later refused the opportunity to be placed on the agenda to bring their concern to light. That’s censorship.
After the board this week officially adopted a formal no-slots position, a commendable stance, County Commissioner Louise Gulyas asked Staff Writer Cara Dahl, who reported on the county’s lack of a public comment period last week, if she was happy that people in the audience were allowed to speak on the issue. The reporter said she had questions and was told by Gulyas to approach the board, only to be disrespected and largely ignored by elected officials. They did not stick around long enough to answer the questions with Purnell simply saying the issue had already been addressed. It seems the matter was discussed behind closed doors like so much else in Snow Hill. What resulted from that discourse is unknown, but there was no public comment period on this week’s agenda, so it’s reasonable to conclude no changes are looming.
The commissioners need to rethink their approach, which is either a result of arrogance or ignorance. Whatever the case, the commissioners need to change their philosophy on public comments. The commissioners cannot live in a bubble, shielded from the public. Some of the commissioners said last week they are extremely approachable, reporting they can’t go to the grocery store without being questioned and that they often hear from citizens. That may be true for some, but that doesn’t mean they are not censoring the general public by not allowing them to talk about what’s on their minds at meetings. There are times when citizens should be allowed to express themselves on the record.
Ever since former Commission President Sonny Bloxom stepped down from the board last year to run for higher office, the meetings have been unprofessional and disorderly. It’s a bit of a joke, as all who have attended the meetings are well aware. There’s no order at all. The blame lies with Purnell, who replaced Bloxom, but the other commissioners are not immune from culpability. They did put him in that chair. As a matter of fact, Tuesday’s meeting may still be officially open as Purnell did not bang the gavel and declare the meeting adjourned before his colleagues left the dais and had not done so by the time our reporter exited the room. There’s a certain professional protocol government meetings should follow and what’s happening in the Snow Hill meeting room is embarrassing and needs to be addressed. There are many other examples, including the fact the county does not keep an audio tape of each meeting and has no interest in broadcasting the meetings on public access television.
A good place to start on the path to becoming a legitimate government meeting is allowing the public an opportunity to be heard and address their elected officials in public. The fact is few people will even want to stand up and be heard, and some of the comments will prove to be a waste of time in the big picture. However, there may be times when concerned citizens will want to publicly address their representatives for legitimate reasons, much the way environmental stalwart Ilia Fehrer once did a decade or so ago. The commissioners could learn from the Ocean City, Berlin and Ocean Pines governments, which all permit comments at the end of their meetings. There maybe times when they regret it, but they typically handle the comments professionally, no matter the content.
Currently, the perception in Snow Hill is the commissioners do not want to be engaged in a public dialogue with the citizens at their meetings. They have their reasons, although none of them are legitimate. In this case, based on our observations, we believe the perception is indeed the reality.