Brown wants to continue late meetings Official disagrees as Dell, Yates cut sessions on planning

Citizens protest by phone

Commissioners say dropping gatherings would save $7,000

February 12, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

County Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said yesterday that he plans to force another vote on a controversial decision to end monthly night meetings of the county's planning commission.

In Brown's absence Monday, Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates voted to end funding for a second monthly meeting of the planning commission, which also meets once a month during the day. Eliminating the night meeting would save the county about $7,000 a year, commissioners said.

"Openness to the public ought to run through this county like a river," Brown said. "It should not be dispensed with an eyedropper. I believe the planning commission has a mandate to do what it has been doing."

The amount of money the county would save seemingly is a pittance compared with the firestorm of protest the commissioners' action has generated.

"Night meetings have become critical to public discussion of general issues and citizens found them informative," said Wayne Schuster, a member of the Freedom Area Community Planning Council, a community activist group in South Carroll.

"I thought we were making headway on citizen input, but this is a step backward," he said. "You don't cut citizens out of the planning process."

If the new policy stands, Schuster said he will reduce his own participation in county government and "investigate

any and all steps to finally have advocacy for South Carroll."

That could include a push to incorporate the Freedom area, which annually absorbs about a third of all new growth in the county, he said.

"The public wants the planning commission available and they want opportunities to interact," said Thomas Hiltz, planning commission chairman. "Night meetings provided that opportunity."

The additional meetings, which have often drawn about 100 people, were not a waste of time or money, Hiltz said. The seven-member panel used those occasions to discuss issues of interest to the public, such as master plan updates and growth issues. Hiltz and other members said they would work evenings without pay.

"Nobody signed up for this job for the money," Hiltz said. "We are all willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done."

Without night meetings, citizen comments would be relegated to subdivision advisory committee meetings, when county departments involved in development review technical data for specific projects.

"If I want a forum to discuss growth issues or adequate facilities, whose time do I take at SAC meetings?" asked Dan Hughes, founder of Solutions for a Better South Carroll.

Yates, who serves on the planning commission, said he supported the motion to save taxpayers' money.

"We never had two meetings before we came into office," said Yates, elected in 1994 on a slow-growth platform. "They wanted public involvement and that is what we gave them at SAC meetings."

Before noon yesterday, Joseph H. Mettle, a planning commissioner, had received more than 20 calls in protest. "What they have done with this action is take citizen input away," said Mettle. "Citizens want information on many issues and we have to give them that opportunity."

No matter when the planning commission meets, Yates said he sees the same people presenting the same issues. He wonders how many residents community activists actually represent.

"About as many people as elected Yates," Hughes said. "Presumably, we all have the same goals. That is why we elected him."

The state code guarantees the planning commission "those powers as may be necessary to enable it to fulfill its functions."

"I would assume that entails the power to schedule meetings," Hughes said.

Mettle has included citizen input on the planning commission agenda for Tuesday and has asked the county attorney to research the legality of the commissioners' action.

"We need to know if the county commissioners have inhibited the planning commission's ability to conduct its business," Mettle said. "We can set the hours necessary to conduct business, but how do we deal with taking the funding away?"

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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