Commissioners Vote 5-2 To Incorporate Public Comment Into Meetings

Commissioners Vote 5-2 To Incorporate Public Comment Into Meetings
The Worcester County Commissioners voted 5-2 Tuesday to work public comment into meetings. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL– The Worcester County Commissioners this week voted 5-2 to find a way to work public comments into their meetings.

While some expressed interest in one-on-one communication with constituents rather than public comments during meetings, the majority of the commissioners voted to develop a method to accept public comment going forward.

“I think it’s time we institute a vehicle for public comment,” Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said. “I think it’s important our constituency feel they’re being heard.”

When it came time for comments from the commissioners at the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Mitrecic referenced a recent newspaper editorial that highlighted the fact that the commissioners in Worcester County were one of the few local bodies that didn’t accept public comment during public meetings. Mitrecic said he wanted to see that change and made a motion to find a way to incorporate public comments into meetings.

Commissioner Ted Elder agreed and said that government officials had a duty to listen to their constituents.  He said that even when the commissioners were required to host public hearings on certain topics it seemed as if their minds were already made up and they didn’t take the comments that were received into account.

“We have people on this board that won’t pay attention to it,” he said. “They have preset notions and that’s the way it’s going to be. I think that’s a disservice to the public.”

Commissioner Diana Purnell echoed Elder’s comments. She pointed out that a decision from earlier in Tuesday’s meeting regarding Diakonia might have been different if the commissioners had heard comments from the public.

“We need the public down here to govern what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re making life changing decisions in this county.”

Commissioner Caryn Abbott told her peers transparency had been a key campaign issue for her. Nevertheless, she said she’d found success communicating directly with people in her district. She said her phone number was online and she was accessible.

“The people that have been wanting public comment, I’ve asked them to call me and not one has,” she said.

Abbott said she also hosted town hall meetings in her district.

“I don’t know how I could be any more accessible but I’m only speaking for myself,” she said.

Mitrecic said the public comment issue dovetailed on the push he’d made for meeting video to be streamed when he’d first gotten elected. He detailed the way the Town of Ocean City incorporated public comment into meetings and said there could be other options to be explored. He said it was time to allow public comments so that more than county staff and newspaper reporters would be in attendance at commissioners’ meetings.

Commissioner Chip Bertino objected to Elder’s assertion that some minds were made up before public hearings were held.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “I don’t think it’s accurate.”

He said government worked best when it was effective and that depended on interaction between officials and the public.

“Public comments in my experience, having spent many years as a reporter covering meetings, public comments don’t necessarily provide more effective government,” he said. “Sometimes they can be a stage for theatrics.”

He said the opportunity for elected officials and constituents to engage with each other provided for better discussion.

“My experience with public comments is it’s a one-way street and there isn’t the back and forth, the opportunity to spend more time on a particular subject and have a back and forth engagement on a particular issue or a particular question. It’s one minute, two minutes, three minutes of a one-way dialogue. I don’t know that that makes for a more effective government which I think all of us up here want.”

He said he’d held town hall meetings for years and was typically joined by Commissioner Jim Bunting.

“Those are a heck of a lot more productive,” he said.

Bertino said the issues considered by elected officials were complex and that commissioners benefited from direct conversations with the people in their districts. He added that when constituents brought an issue to their representative, that commissioner brought it to the group as a whole.

“We’ve all brought discussion to this group on issues that have been important to our district, or individuals. We certainly all get emails and texts. We’ve brought those to the group.”

Abbott said she’d spoken during the public comment period during Worcester County Board of Education meetings for the past few years.

“I found it very cold,” she said. “You come in, you speak for two minutes to people that may or may not even gesture that they see you. The only thing we’ve been able to get accomplished in the three years is they now livestream the meetings.”

She said that was why she felt one-on-one discussions with citizens were more effective. Commissioner Eric Fiori agreed. He said earlier in Tuesday’s meeting, during a public hearing on a growth allocation request, a citizen had voiced concerns and raised questions. The commissioners then had staff address those questions.

“That kind of interaction is so much more effective than someone just coming up on an open comment, spouting out their opinion and walking away…,” he said. “I think it’s counterproductive.”

He said he wanted transparency and would support allowing public comment if there was a way to do it differently than what is seen at some meetings.

Purnell said public meetings should be public meetings.

“Public meetings,” she said. “That’s the operative word—public. What we have 99% of the times is department heads. Sometimes we need to hear from the public. We need that to help us make our decisions.”

Fiori agreed but said issuing a blanket yes or no on public comment was not the way to go.

“If we put some framework in place that allows effective public comment, I don’t think anyone would be opposed to doing that,” he said. “I think we need to think about this and see a way constituents can come and speak with us in an effective way… I think we need to structure a system that works for both the constituents and for the sake of the meeting and time allowed.”

Mitrecic said that’s what his motion was—to have staff work on finding a way the commissioners could incorporate public comment.

“It was to come up with a mechanism,” he said.

Bertino maintained that the commissioners were accessible. He pointed to an issue on Tuesday’s agenda regarding the need to ask the state for drainage improvements on Route 12.

“That was an email that I received,” he said. “I received it from an individual not even in my district asking that we look into it. It was immediately put on the agenda and we acted on it accordingly. That’s effective governance.”

He added that regardless of who was president of the board, they granted requests from fellow commissioners to put items on the agenda.

Bunting said he’d been a commissioner for 13 years and had seen the public comment issue come up before. He said that adding public comments to the agenda could take away the commissioners’ ability to control and run the meeting.

“We have public comments on what’s necessary,” he said.

He added that his phone number was available to the public and he was willing to talk to citizens about whatever concerned them.

The commissioners voted 5-2, with Bunting and Bertino opposed, to have staff determine a way to incorporate public comment into commissioner meetings.