Editorial: Commissioners wrongly deny the public the right to question them

In a matter of minutes Monday night, the members of the Whitfield County Board of Commissioners showed they aren't that interested in truly open government. As long as they don't break any open meeting laws — you know, do things by the book — they are content with shutting the public out of an important discussion involving the public's tax dollars.

Discussing, then crafting, policy behind the scenes? Absolutely. Open, spirited debate during an open meeting or work session about said policy? Pass. Giving the public the opportunity to ask commissioners questions before voting on the change? Nah.

Commissioners voted 5-0 Monday night to give county employees a 2% pay increase retroactive to July 1. The pay increase will cost an estimated $300,000 this year.

This editorial isn't about the merits or pitfalls of giving county employees a raise. This is about how commissioners conducted the people's business away from the people.

On the Friday before a Monday commissioners meeting, county officials usually post an agenda with items that may be discussed. Local government agendas are often a moving target and may change. Elected boards and councils are allowed to add an item to the agenda before a meeting as long as there is an affirmative vote.

The county's agenda this past Friday did not have a worker pay raise listed as an item for consideration or one that could be added. On Monday, the agenda distributed at the 6 p.m. meeting had "County employee pay adjustment" listed as "a potential additional item."

At the start of the meeting, Commission Chairman Lynn Laughter motioned to add the "County employee pay adjustment" to the agenda. The motion carried 4-0.

After commissioners approved minutes from previous meetings, appointed someone to the Highland Rivers Health Governing Board of Directors and went through their regular agenda items, Laughter brought up the "County employee pay adjustment." Laughter told attendees that the pay adjustment was a unilateral 2% raise for county employees retroactive to July 1, and that it would cost the county about $300,000.

No other board members spoke about the proposed pay raise. Laughter called for a vote, and it passed 5-0. No one from the public could have questioned, opposed or supported the pay increase since public comment was only allowed after the vote. On top of that, the item "County employee pay adjustment" is so tremendously vague that county residents would not know the specifics.

Commissioners had not publicly discussed an employee pay increase since the fall of 2018 when they talked about the possibility during a budget meeting. Eight or nine months passed without a single commissioner publicly floating the idea.

That's the wrong way to conduct the people's business. Instead, commissioners should have brought the proposal up during a work session or meeting weeks ago, then discussed it publicly. That would have given county taxpayers ample opportunity to query commissioners. It would have allowed county staff time to research the issue, gather salary data from neighboring counties and analyze the long-term effect on the budget.

But commissioners apparently aren't concerned with hearing from the public on this issue. After all, they followed the rules.

Commissioner Barry Robbins said: "We had an open meeting. It was put on the agenda as a potential item by the chairwoman, and we voted to amend the agenda (to include the pay increase)."

Commissioner Greg Jones said: "I think it was done the right way. We voted on it in public."

We are flummoxed by these responses. Jones, Robbins and the rest of the commissioners just don't understand the optics of what they did Monday night. They denied the public their right to be made aware of an issue and ask questions before commissioners voted.

This latest breach of public trust should make you wary of what other behind-the-scenes moves commissioners are contemplating. What's the next agenda item that commissioners will add at the last minute?

Yes, commissioners broke no laws in approving the employee pay raise Monday night.

They did, however, break the public's trust in them.

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