Letter: Time to return to legitimate open government

Posted

If it’s the first or third Tuesday of the month, I’ve blocked that day to attend the county commission meeting. Finally, after more than a year, you can attend in person… with conditions. I was looking forward to finally getting back.
In the last 17 years I’ve attended over 320 meetings. I do a write-up of each meeting for the CCFC board. For the last year, I’ve watched, sometimes unsuccessfully, the meetings virtually. I’ve watched commissioners go about the county business in the sterile atmosphere of a yellow-taped room that reeks of fear. I’ve seen politicians wear masks and when the cameras are off, so do the masks. It seems virtue signaling has invaded Franklin County as well.
A free people have the right to seek to redress their grievances to their leaders.
In the United States the right to petition is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, which specifically prohibits Congress from abridging "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Although often overlooked in favor of other more famous freedoms, and sometimes taken for granted, many other civil liberties are enforceable against the government only by exercising this basic right, say constitutional law experts.
This applies to the Franklin County commission and their boards as well.
There has been an ominous change in Franklin County over the past several years. Commissioners by and through their actions has decreased access to public meetings using various excuses, COVID-19 being the latest one.
Wakulla County, amongst the many other counties that also get it right, should be the model for Franklin County. Here’s the differences between Wakulla and Franklin County:
General Look and Feel: Franklin: Closed off - sit here, not there - and not encouraged to attend. Wakulla: Encouraged to attend, sit anywhere you want.
Scheduled Meetings: Franklin: Only held in one place during a workday. Not centralized for easy access to all. Wakulla: Held at the end of the workday, thereby encouraging participation.
Addressing the Commission: Franklin: Must fill out a virtual speaker card prior to the meeting. Wakulla: Fill out a speaker card before or during the meeting.
Time Available to Speak: Franklin: 3 minutes for general public during public comments, and 1 minute if addressing an item on the agenda, or less at the discretion of the chair. Wakulla: 3 minutes whenever addressing the commission.
Handouts and Documents for the Commissioners: Franklin: Must be turned in by the previous Thursday. Wakulla: Before or during the commission meeting
Number of Citizens Speaking: Franklin: Typically, less than three. Wakulla: Typically, 15-25
Open to All: Franklin: Capacity limited to a few. Wakulla: Yes
The above policies serve to build a wall between the people and the government they have elected. It helps to tamp down criticism and empowers the commission to believe they have widespread support when they may not. It allows profligate spending in a virtual darkness. It does the opposite of encouraging citizen participation and, if you have been listening, you can see the number of actual citizens speaking is typically from zero to three. Hardly a reason for such draconian rules.
I am a frequent writer in support of an open and inviting government that fully embraces the concept that citizens often have good ideas. As we get past COVID, it’s also time to get past policies that shield you from public scrutiny. Prove your legitimacy by defending your positions and policies by encouraging all of us to return to the open government we are guaranteed under law.
Allan J. Feifer
Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, Inc.

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