A Reporter’s View

BERLIN – The reality of the County Commissioners’ no public comment policy was brought home this week when they ignored this reporter’s questions after the last item of the day.

Obviously smarting from an extensive article published in last week’s issue on the lack of public comment at commissioner meetings and the capricious nature of the commission president’s decisions on when to allow the public to speak on agenda items, the commissioners permitted a controlled number of speakers on the last item of the day, a hastily arranged discussion on slot machines.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Commissioner Louise Gulyas stood up and asked this reporter, “Cara, are you happy now?”

I stood up and told the commissioners that I had another question on the public comment issue. Gulyas asked me to come up to the front of the meeting room where I could be heard. I immediately started for the front of the room, but before I reached the podium, Gulyas had walked away, descended the steps into the public seating area and left.

Although I had walked up to the podium and was ready to ask a question, other commissioners appeared unaware there was any more business to be conducted.

At the end of each session, the commissioners say, they are willing to listen to questions from the floor, although there is neither an agenda item nor an announcement to that effect, and the public does not seem to know about it. The commissioners do invite questions from the press at the end of each session.

Once at the podium, I tried to get the attention of the commissioners, unsuccessfully, as they gathered their things to leave and began talking to their neighbors.

I tried to get the attention of Commission President Jim Purnell, sitting directly in front of the podium, to no avail. I tried several more times to get his attention, asking that the commissioners be told that the meeting was n0t over so I could ask my question. Purnell did not respond. Finally, I went up to the dais, as other commissioners trickled away or turned to talk to others.

Although I have covered the county commissioners for nearly five years, and attended well over 100 commissioner meetings, Purnell had to ask me if I was the reporter who called him last week about the public comment period.

Purnell tried to tell me that the commissioners had considered the public comment issue brought up in my article, and seemed to think that I would know the result of that discussion, apparently in that morning’s executive session, despite no specific mention or explanation during the meeting.

I explained several times I had a different question, a follow-up question, which I wanted to put to the entire set of commissioners. I pressed Purnell to bring the commissioners to order so I could ask my question, as some walked away.  Purnell still insisted my question had been answered, although, as I had not been given the chance to ask it, he did not know what that question was.

Aware that the meeting had not been officially adjourned, I asked that the commissioners be called to order. Purnell asked who was supposed to do that. Flabbergasted, I replied, “You are.” He did not seem to agree.

Finally, with Purnell and the rest of the commissioners, except Linda Busick, unwilling to show me the respect and courtesy due a citizen of this county, or a reporter who has always strived to report on those commissioners fairly and objectively, I exited.

I left without the answer to a simple question – has anything changed in the public comment policy? The commissioners would not take the time to listen.

I cannot help but wonder if the commissioners were displeased that I had written an article criticizing their polices and whether they felt justified in silencing a question they did not want to answer.

They say anyone with an issue can ask to be put on the agenda – but they vote on what gets on that agenda. They say anyone is welcome to stand up and ask a question, but walk away or play dumb before questions are even asked.