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Open government means open discussion

As our county commissioners ponder whether or not to allow public comments during budget hearings, we would like to encourage them to be proactive and hear what people have to say before budgets are officially set. This type of open government sets a good and much needed precedent for all local governments and gives the citizens a chance for input on the front side of issues. 

Having attended school board, city council, and county commission meetings for the better part of 20 years our Progress staff can attest that with the exception of a couple of times each year when the budget - already practically set in stone - is presented, few members of the rank-and-file attend government meetings. 

And we understand why. Attending a meeting which strictly adheres to agendas where department heads present proposals that are voted on without much discussion can make regular citizens feel like fish out of water. Not only does it foster a sense of helplessness, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of anyone who wants to voice their opinion. 

While open meeting laws give the public the right to attend meetings of government, public comment is subject to limitations. For instance, the school board gives citizens, if properly approved on the agenda ahead of time, five minutes to let board members know of their concerns. Board members are not required to (and rarely) respond to anyone making comments. This leaves people feeling their thoughts have fallen on deaf ears because the board members don’t say anything besides a formal “thank you for your comments.” 

Attendees at a Jasper City Council meeting are more likely to be recognized from the floor without any prior protocol. The county’s planning commission has a sign-in at the time of the meetings for comments and typically allows ample back-and-forth. 

Allowing comments at the county’s less formal public hearings on the budget would allow commissioners to know the concerns of the citizenry.

We ask the commissioners to consider the long tradition of public debate in this country, when establishing future policies. Think of Boston’s Faneuil Hall, a meeting hall since 1742, where Samuel Adams and other famous patriots lead cries of protest against the imposition of taxes on the colonies. Those boisterous meetings led to the Boston Tea Party, which led to this country’s independence.

When parents or property owners or students attend modern meetings, they are carrying on a noble tradition of open government and should be given a chance to be heard. 

We don’t want officials besieged by a barrage of comments that don’t have any bearing on the topic at hand but government officials serve the public and the people they serve should be given an opportunity to speak in a public forum. 

Anything less would be contrary to the spirit of this nation.