Carroll County needs open government

Public's business: Meetings at night and beyond Westminster would help involve citizenry

Agenda '99

Goals for the new year

January 08, 1999

NEVER underestimate the healthy effects of sunlight. It is good for the human body -- and for governing bodies.

Carroll County's new board of commissioners must embrace that philosophy of openness to restore its public credibility. Secret dealings and hidden agendas, a shameful blemish on the previous three-member board, are unacceptable.

Public access to and participation in government deliberations are especially critical in a system where the commissioners serve executive and legislative functions, diluting the checks and balances of separate branches.

Since assuming office a month ago, the new commissioners have taken one important step in that direction. They pledged to advertise their official meetings and to set a fixed schedule of weekly meetings with staff department heads. This is in contrast to the incomplete official agendas, closet conferences and meetings that were set by the whim of previous commissioners.

Two additional steps toward openness need to be taken.

First, official meetings should be held at night, when more of the public is able to attend. This is not necessary for all meetings, but every month or so residents with day jobs should have a chance to see their commissioners (and tax dollars) in action.

Another welcome step would be for the commissioners to hold occasional meetings in other parts of the county, instead of always in Westminster. That would enhance public access and participation.

These traveling meetings shouldn't be used to hide controversial actions, but they would be a good place for discussions and decisions on previously considered matters.

Donald I. Dell, returning for his third consecutive term, supports some night sessions. Julia Walsh Gouge, back for a third term after a four-year absence, favors a "road show" for meetings. Robin Bartlett Frazier, in her first term, is for increased public access.

Certain matters of government need be conducted in closed meetings, such as land acquisition, personnel actions and legal cases. But the public is entitled to a good-faith effort by the commissioners to let the light shine on their deliberations and actions.

No one wants the open meeting law's exemption for personnel matters to be used again as an inappropriate smoke screen -- a ruse the previous board attempted in November to secretly approve a whopping pay raise.

That 650-percent increase in commissioner per diem, quietly approved by Mr. Dell and Richard T. Yates in the waning days of their term, provoked such outcry that the board rescinded its act. But other instances of shadow government in the past four years were just as arrogant, if less controversial.

Among them:

The shelving of the county's proposed master land-use plan after commissioners publicly committed to act on it.

The decision to abolish the position of historic planner, announced months after the board made the decision.

A deal cut with the housing industry to gain its support for a law pegging growth to the availability of adequate facilities.

The unannounced decision to destroy a dangerous dog. This again proves the former board had little stomach for opposing viewpoints, even when its verdict was sound.

Carroll is no longer a small rural county. Its annual operating and capital budgets exceed $200 million. The rapidly growing population tops 150,000 residents, most of them without direct ties to agriculture and many of them bedroom commuters to jobs in other counties and states.

Whether Carroll's residents ever decide to switch to home-rule government with a full-time county executive, they expect open government and accountability that is the standard of civic rule elsewhere.

Openness is an urgent goal for the Carroll County commissioners. Greater respect for the public's voice will strengthen, not weaken, the hand of these commissioners.

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