Editorial: Commissioners erode public trust by sidestepping their rules

If there was no vote, did it actually happen?

On Monday night during a work session, the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners decided to extend by one week the application deadline for the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) 2020 citizens advisory committee. Applications to the committee, which will study and vet projects for a proposed SPLOST referendum, are now due July 8. Commissioners pushed the deadline back because of a dearth of applications.

While we support moving the deadline back one week, we question how it was done.

Commissioners cannot legally vote on any matter during a work session, per Georgia's Open Meeting Laws. They can only vote during formal meetings, whether they are called or regularly scheduled. The board's vice chairman says commissioners didn't vote Monday night.

"There was no vote. We don't vote at work sessions," said board Vice Chairman Harold Brooker, who presided over the meeting because Chairman Lynn Laughter did not attend. "But there was unanimous consensus."

Here's the problem: the application deadline is still July 1 since commissioners haven't voted to change it. Commissioners plan to vote on July 8 to extend the deadline to July 8. Should applications received after the July 1 deadline be accepted?

Commissioners made a change to county policy without taking a vote, but through a slick phrase -- "unanimous consensus."

This isn't how the process works. Work sessions are for discussion only. Votes are taken at official meetings. State law allows the polling of boards, city councils and other elected bodies, but a poll is not legally binding. Compounding the problem is that discussion of extending the SPLOST citizens committee deadline wasn't listed on the work session agenda.

Commissioners sidestepped their rules. In doing so, they eroded public trust. Commissioners also set a dangerous precedent.

What's to keep commissioners from meeting during a work session and coming to a "unanimous consensus" to raise your property taxes? Or award a multi-million dollar contract by "unanimous consensus"? Or make a drastic change to county law by "unanimous consensus"?

No transparency. No advance warning. No public discussion. No ability for you, the taxpayer, to ask questions.

This Monday night flub could have easily been avoided. Commissioners can call special meetings as long as they give the public 24 hours notice. Commissioners should have called a special meeting later this week and taken a legal, recorded vote to change the application deadline. Now, that's exactly what they must do.

Brooker knows better. He's the vice chairman. He's in his third-straight four-year term as a commissioner, having previously served on the board. The three other commissioners know better, too.

The residents of Whitfield County deserve better.

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