The politics of accountability – Part 2

Ben Nelms's picture

I don’t normally continue a column from one week to the next. But last week’s column on government accountability and transparency and the need to televise or otherwise have a video recording of public meetings with playback capability deserves a bit more elaboration.

I was in my teens when I began to notice that some in politics acted like jackasses and acted like we didn’t notice or care. Still today, whether local, state or federal, some say jump, and they expect us to say “how high” in lock-step fashion.

Since I entered the world of journalism nearly 10 years ago, my belief in the need for accountability and transparency has been ratcheted up by several magnitudes. The reason is simple. Those of us whose job it is to cover meeting after meeting after meeting often see where a greater attempt by elected and appointed bodies to more thoroughly communicate would go a long way toward helping citizens critique, understand and, yes, even appreciate their government.

The reality is that many in elected or appointed office are good people and would not object to video broadcasts or recordings, and some would likely welcome it. There are those in office that don’t mind having their job performance critiqued.

The trouble is that sometimes, some of those in office and those working for those in office on city, county or state government payrolls take a different view. For some, but by no means all, they would prefer to play on the shortsighted public apathy (and apathy is our fault, not theirs) that already exists as a reason for not promoting more accountability by doing things such as televising public meetings.

Their claim that if people were interested in attending they could do so is lame and ludicrous and smacks of an unspoken agenda. I wonder who these “outstanding public servants” might be? Are they so far removed from reality that they don’t realize that some citizens have jobs or other obligations that prohibit them from attending? Are they so afraid of the camera and being recorded for posterity that they will think up any reason, disingenuous or otherwise, why meetings should not be recorded?

And for those in office or on city/county/state government payrolls who think I’m exaggerating, my sentiment is, tell it to someone who’ll believe you, someone who does not attend scores of public meetings each year.

The words of one Jefferson County commissioner said it best. He apparently forgot I was still in the room after a Monday morning work session a few years ago when he leaned over to a fellow commissioner and said, “I don’t know why these people have to come to these meetings. Why can’t they just leave us alone and let us do our job?” How many of you out there really believe this elected official was the only one to hold such a view?

Speaking of little Jefferson County, a citizen named Ben Benson showed up one night at a commission meeting with a small video camera. He taped the meeting and uploaded it on his website. He taped every meeting for the next three years. All were uploaded. All could be viewed 24/7 for everyone to see.

And yes, many people never took the time to visit the site. Yes, apathy does seem to rule. But for those interested, and those wanting to research local government activities, it was a Godsend. Benson made a difference, in a poor, rural county of only 18,000 people. By the way, today in Coweta County the commission meetings are recorded on video.

So those of you who are already apathetic (perhaps witnessed by the abysmal voter turnout in some of our local elections) and maintain that videoing is a waste of time, and for those of you in elected office or on government payrolls who would prefer to have your actions remain as out of sight as possible, maybe you are the problem.

Government that is not forthright in trying to find new ways to communicate is a government that is already suspect.

Here’s a rough thought. Is it possible that some of Fayette’s high school students with budding media experience might hone their skills by videoing and/or uploading local government meetings on the various governmental websites? Or perhaps those entities could video the meetings themselves for uploading by staff or students.

And The Citizen would be glad to provide space on its Web server to host videos from meetings so the recordings could be accessed by anyone at any time.

There’s one other thing. Elected and appointed positions are often difficult and thankless jobs, especially on school boards. That’s why people aren’t usually standing in line to fill them. I think it would benefit elected officials and the public to be able to see those officials in action.

Sometimes people will agree with what they see, sometimes they’ll disagree. The ability to watch a meeting will actually provide viewers with an enhanced knowledge about how their government functions and, who knows, it could spur some on to get involved in their local government. And that’s a good thing.

Only the apathetic and those intent on hiding in the shadows from public scrutiny will deny that knowledge is a tool. And more knowledge the better.

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Submitted by TyroneConfidential on Thu, 06/05/2008 - 12:10pm.

Mr. Nelms, a citizen’s thank you, for an excellent observation on governmental accountability. Your teenage political experiences reminds me of when I first became eligible to vote in the 1960’s. A councilman running for re-election asked for my vote and said he had a plan. I asked what was the plan? He said, “ I can’t tell you because my opponents might steal it”. He was re-elected but we never found out what the plan was. Of course his plan was to dupe the voters and put himself back in office. Forty years later, nothing has changed about accountability except that governmental laws have become much more complex, and the effort by government to be secret and unaccountable threaten our democratic system’s ability to survive.
The Original theory of our republic was to allow the people to elect the best amongst us to represent the majority’s views. Candidates make promises then renege, take an oath to uphold the constitution, make unconstitutional laws; then hire a lawyer to defend the government. The citizens end up paying taxes to support a government who works against them. Right, wrong or common sense have no meaning to most of our officials. Facts are rarely examined and applied to the law to make a fair decision even though the law says they shall. The decision then becomes unconstitutional and a lawsuit is the result. The citizens is now paying double, their taxes go to pay the lawyer to defend against them; then the citizens pays for their own lawyer, while their elected representative ignore the issues and allow management to make it difficult for the citizens to obtain public records and sometimes alter those records - A criminal offense.
For example Ben, let’s take a government you are well familiar with, the Town of Tyrone. You were there last March when I came before the Planning Commission with a zoning amendment which would have corrected a small part of the financial damage created by past councils.
The preceding events were as follows: The new council and planning commission take office on a platform of zoning reform. During the election campaign, Rehwaldt, Young, Dial & Shenkle all asked me if they’re elected would I consider dropping my lawsuit if the zoning laws are amended or repealed. My answer was yes. Shortly after taking office I hear that the council is not going to even investigate the zoning ordinance and they refuse to talk to me about it under directions of the lawyer.
Under the required Federal Rules of Procedure, I sent a letter to the lawyer for a pre-trial settlement conference with the Town. Unknown to me, the council goes into secret executive session and votes not to have a settlement conference. The mayor does not announce the purpose of the executive session and signs a sworn affidavit stating that no action was taken in the session. This is a lawyer violation of Federal law, council’s violation of the open hearings law and the mayor lying under oath. Word of the secret session leaks out. I call the mayor to ask if it’s true, but the mayor says he knows nothing about it. The council minutes make no mention, but when confronted the lawyer admits it’s true. The officials could care less about their legal violations.
In reneging on their campaign promise to do something about the zoning, Planning chairman Gordon Shenkle told me that they had no plans for review. To force the issue I paid $500 to file a zoning amendment, which by Tyrone law would force the planners to investigate the evidence in my 47 page typed application.
Mgr. Chris Venice refused to accept my highly organized application according to Tyrone application procedure, stating it wasn’t on the required form when they didn’t have such a form, a lie. She said I would have to go before council and get permission to file the application - a procedural due process violation of law. Then called the lawyer and told him that I just walked into city with only a verbal request - another lie. The lawyer Davenport then writes me one of his $400 letters telling me my application cannot be verbal.
At the unlawful application permission hearing, I made all the officials back down and even the lawyer had to admit I was correct to begin with. No one was reprimanded and I was allowed to file the exact same original application. Why do they cause the citizens all this trouble?
Later at the planning workshop my application was to be evaluated, but my evaluation was cancelled because Valerie Fowler didn’t give the planner my full application. She left out 41 of the 47 pages - a violation of ministerial duties and due process. Did anyone care? No.
At the final planning hearing without benefit of a proper review, the commission unanimously voted not to recommend my proposal to council. After two months, I finally came back to council all of whom said not a single word of discussion except to promptly vote my proposal down.
The planning commission in violation of the GA Zoning Procedures Act did not give council a written report of their investigations. The only items in file were my application and a irrelevant 2 yr old zoning report made by the fired Barry Amos that Valerie had secretly slipped into the file. The council’s denial was an unconstitutional decision made without any facts to back it up.

Mr. Nelms, speaking of your suggestion that public hearings be on video, Tyrone actually does that. But it hasn’t created accountability. I have three videos on my issues that have all been altered - a serious criminal violation. I notified all council member and asked for an investigations. My complaint was totally ignored. In this one scenario, Tyrone officials violated the law 12 times and told 7 lies.

Dick Shelley

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