Commissioners May Unveil Meeting Material Beforehand

SNOW HILL – County citizens may soon be allowed a glimpse of the County Commissioners’ meeting agenda items on the Worcester County website a few days ahead of the event.

Ellie Diegelmann, a frequent commenter at county public hearings who has said in the past that the county does not release enough information about planned discussions, asked the commissioners to consider revealing the contents of their agenda before the Tuesday meetings at the Nov. 20 session.

“The commissioners’ packets could be put on the website in advance of the meeting,” Diegelmann suggested at the end of the Nov. 20 session.

“We haven’t done that,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.

“Is this something you could possibly give consideration to?” Diegelmann asked.

County Administrator Gerry Mason dismissed the idea, saying,  “You see the thickness of that? We can’t possibly put that on the website.”

Interested citizens can visit the government offices in Snow Hill on Mondays to take a look at the packet released to reporters and citizen organizations, Mason said.

Diegelmann pointed out that the Ocean City town council agenda packets are put online.

“We’re just thinking of saving the taxpayer’s money,” Boggs said.

In a later interview, Commissioner Linda Busick said, “They can see the packet Monday. I guess it’s been adequate all these years.”

Kathy Mathias, assistant to the city manager in Ocean City, assembles the Ocean City council agenda materials and reports that the task takes little time.

“Once we have the agenda prepared with all the back-up information, our web specialist takes the document and converts it to a PDF and puts it on the web page,” she said.

Mathias could not estimate the precise amount of time the work takes because she receives the information all week long, she said. While she uses a binder program to pull the materials together, some word processing programs like Microsoft Word allow files to be saved in the right format for posting.

The Ocean City packet of background materials tends to be fewer pages than Worcester County’s, with the most recent coming in at 52 pages.

This week’s Worcester County meeting packet encompassed 23 agenda items. Six were listed on the posted agenda, an unusually high number of identified items.

The total packet released to the press, neither unusually large nor small, comprised roughly 325 pages of material.

Mathias said she occasionally has to trim the background materials for volume, but that is not common.

Diegelmann, who spoke twice at a public hearing that day, almost did not get a chance to make the recommendation. The Ocean City resident and former County Commissioner candidate stood up during the announced questions from the press period to ask permission to speak. “I’m not from the press. Am I still allowed to talk?” Diegelmann asked.

“Good question,” county attorney Ed Hammond said.

The commissioners seemed taken aback by her request to speak, despite an avowed “open door” policy, from at least two commissioners, Commission President Jim Purnell and Commissioner Louise Gulyas.

With little enthusiasm, Gulyas said, “Sure.”

“Go ahead,” Purnell.

The commissioners, while not receptive to being questioned by the public on the idea at Tuesday’s meeting, were more amenable to the suggestion later.

Commissioner Bobby Cowger said the county could send out or post a list of agenda items and a one- or two-sentence description of the matter.

“You wouldn’t have to put all the detailed stuff but it would let people know what we’re talking about,” Cowger said. “I’m sure with the technology out there it shouldn’t take a whole lot.”

Commissioner Virgil Shockley agreed.

“I could see listing items,” said Shockley in a later interview. “As for taking the packet and putting the whole thing online, I don’t know.”

Shockley said he does not know enough about the technology to determine if it would be difficult or not.

“If you can do it easily and quickly, I don’t see any problem with it,” Shockley said. “I just don’t want to tie up an employee for half a day.”

Boggs, initially dismissive of the idea at this week’s meeting, said in a later telephone interview that she would be interested in more information on posting packet materials online.

“I don’t like to make decisions off the cuff like that,” Boggs said. “I don’t know what the difficulty would be for staff, what the cost would be. … I have a lot of questions and I will ask staff.”

Cowger said he believes residents are interested in knowing what is going on with their government.

“I think there’s a lot of people who really do have an interest in what’s going on, but you don’t hear from them because [meetings] are during the day,” Cowger said.