SNOW HILL – Citizens called for transparency in county government this week during a public hearing on a law that would allow the Worcester County Commissioners to consolidate, eliminate or reorganize county departments behind closed doors.
Speakers also called for public comment at commissioner meetings and for the meetings to be recorded and broadcast.
Most county officials tried to cast the debate in the light of protecting county workers from having personnel issues aired in public. ersonnel issues are already enshrined in state law as matters that should be conducted in closed session.
The protest over the closed-door consolidation discussion last spring was not about personnel matters being discussed in private, but about policy decisions being made out of earshot of the public.
On May 26, 2009, during a budget work session, the commissioners began discussing the possible consolidation of the Comprehensive Planning and the Environmental Programs departments into the Development Review and Permitting Department. The commissioners asked Human Resources Director George Bradley which positions were under consideration for elimination. No staff names were mentioned, but Bradley did detail those positions.
After further discussion, the commissioners went into closed session over, they said, were personnel matters. When they emerged from that closed session, the commissioners did not acknowledge that a decision to consolidate the three departments had been made.
The Assateague Coastal Trust (ACT) subsequently filed an Open Meetings Act complaint with the state, which was upheld by the Open Meetings Act Compliance Board in the fall.
The proposed law appears to be a reaction to that decision.
The legislation reads: “The County Commissioners, in exercise of their executive powers, shall take such administrative actions that they deem necessary, to create, change, discontinue or abolish County offices and departments and to remove or assign additional functions to such offices and departments.”
During the public hearing on the legislation Tuesday morning, no one spoke in favor of the proposed law, but the commissioners eventually voted 5-2 in favor of it, with Commissioners Louise Gulyas and Virgil Shockley aopposed.
Several citizens spoke in opposition to the legislation.
“We’re talking about transparency in government. This is fundamental to democratic government,” said Tom Jones, president of ACT.
Jones described the law as “a darkening of Worcester County’s government.”
The Maryland General Assembly, Jones said, is currently heading in the other direction, considering several bills to make state government more open.
The consolidation of three departments was not at heart a personnel issue, but a policy issue, Jones said.
Jones also noted the county needs to do a better job of providing citizens access to their meetings and hearings. More public hearings should be held in the evening, he said, so citizens can attend.
Commissioner meetings should be recorded and made available on local television or streamed on the county website, he also suggested.
“We don’t try to hide anything,” Commission President Bud Church said.
Church blamed the local newspapers for this perception, saying the press takes things out of context in reporting commissioner meetings.
If the commissioners were even just considering furloughs or lay-offs, the media would just distort the subject, Church said.
“The papers, the scenarios would be so far fetched no one would understand what’s going on,” said Church.
Evening meetings or hearings could be considered, he said.
“I just have a problem with discussing everything we do in public,” Church said. “I think there are some media who want us to do that. It’s not going to happen.”
While personnel issues should be discussed in private, said Jones, other things need to be done in the open air.
“If it’s a strict issue of departments you have in the county who serve the public, that does need a public hearing,” Jones said.
The commissioners took the late May discussion about consolidating three departments into closed session, after talks began in open session, because matters were getting into personnel issues, Church said.
Much of that discussion must have involved restructuring the departments, said Jones.
If the discussion had not involved losing personnel, the entire discussion would have been in public, county attorney Sonny Bloxom said. In order to downsize, the commissioners had to talk about cutting personnel, and might have to talk specifically about which person to keep, he said.
Jones is concerned about the reorganization, said Commissioner Louise Gulyas.
“It has nothing to do with the personnel issues of the people that work in that department,” Gulyas said.
Gulyas initially supported the consolidation, but expressed doubts later.
Bloxom acknowledged that the commissioners could have discussed the consolidation issue in general in public, while not getting into specifics.
“That’s how you started,” Bloxom said.
Ed Lee, head of the Worcester County chapter of the NAACP, supported Jones’ position.
The people of Worcester County do not consider the county government transparent, Lee said, and the commissioners need to take that perception into consideration.
“I am troubled and have been troubled for years that when I come to the people’s court they can’t open their mouths,” Lee said.
The press is allotted a chance to ask questions at every commissioner meeting, but the people are not, Lee said.
Joan Roache also spoke to oppose the bill.
“The more open government is, the more citizens feel engaged,” said Roache.
Roache strongly supported some type of recording of commissioner meetings, either televised or on the Internet.
If the commissioners are worried that the press is misrepresenting meetings, making recordings available would let citizens see what’s happening for themselves, Roache said.
“You should always be moving to a more open government, not a less open government,” said Roach.
Bloxom, when Roach finished her testimony, said that the consolidation was not done willy-nilly, but that county administrator Gerry Mason had put together a plan to consolidate the three departments.
The next speaker, Lorraine Purnell-Ayres, also opposed the legislation.
“Transparency is one thing we don’t just request. We’re demanding it. Just because you can, doesn’t also make it right,” Purnell-Ayres said.
Personnel issues should remain private, she said.
“You’ve got to let us know what’s going on. Not after the fact,” said Purnell-Ayres.
The subject of agenda availability also resurfaced.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do prior to the meetings. I don’t know if I need to be there,” Purnell-Ayres said. She said she could not locate an agenda for Tuesday’s meeting the day before it was held, but if she had known more about what was going to be discussed, she would have brought more citizens with her to the meeting.
Ocean City has the agenda and meeting packet available on Fridays, Ellie Diegelmann noted, with the meeting held on Monday. For Worcester County, meeting packets are not available until less than 24 hours before the meeting.
“We’ve heard your meaning and it’s loud and clear. It will be taken under consideration,” said Church.
A lot of the comments made during the hearing did not pertain to the legislation under consideration, said Commissioner Bobby Cowger.
“The bill is pretty open and shut in what it says,” said Cowger.
The bill clarifies that Worcester County elected officials have the power to re-organize government departments either in open or closed meetings, said Bloxom.
“Most likely, everything you’re going to do is in open session,” Bloxom.
The bill is timely, Bloxom said, because budget deliberations are coming up, and the commissioners may need to consider other changes to county departments.
“This has nothing to do with overall transparency,” said Boggs.
The general public has misunderstood the particulars, Bloxom said. The commissioners have both legislative and executive powers, which means they can make executive decisions like the governor of a state or the president.
“It bothers me we keep talking about the powers,” said Gulyas.
“We’re representative government, that’s what we are,” said Boggs.
The people are saying the commissioners don’t listen to them, Gulyas said.
That is a separate issue, Bloxom said, although speakers did present some good ideas.
“I think we should wait and go back over these ideas,” said Gulyas.
“That’s got nothing to do with the law,” Bloxom said.
If the commissioners passed the legislation at this week’s meeting, the commissioners would still have an opportunity to address the other concerns brought up later, said Commissioner Jim Purnell.
“The perception is we sitting up here are not part of the community. That’s not true, folks … we have the same concerns, the same issues you do. We don’t want to do anything against what you want,” said Church.
There is hardly a day when he does not get a call from citizens, he said.
“This is a housecleaning issue. It doesn’t do away with any of your concerns at all,” said Church. “All of your concerns will be addressed.”
The commissioners voted 5 to 2 to pass the legislation.
Gulyas and Commissioner Virgil Shockley dissented.
“We already have the power to do this,” Shockley said.