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Wanted: More citizen turnout for County Commissioners' night meetings

February 25, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Almost a year after the Washington County Commissioners began holding evening meetings in the county's municipalities, the commissioners said they are going well but also said the meetings are not drawing as much public participation as they hoped.

Since the spring of 2007, the commissioners have held at least one meeting per month in one of the county's eight towns, not including the City of Hagerstown, Washington County Commissioners President John F. Barr said.

The idea, according to the commissioners, was to increase public participation and give residents a glimpse into how their government works.

"Several of us running for office in 2006 advocated this idea of going out to the communities to meet with the people and hear their concerns," Barr said.

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The commissioners agreed that the meetings have been good opportunities to meet with the mayors and councils of the towns.

Barr said town officials seem encouraged by face-to-face meetings.

"I think they feel more comfortable calling my cell phone if they have problems than they did before," Barr said.

But public participation at the meetings has been less consistent.

While a meeting in Sharpsburg last year drew more than 30 people who were eager to tell the commissioners about crime, animal control and other problems in their town, other meetings have brought out less than five residents.

Turnout at meetings in Hancock and Clear Spring were high but only because residents were concerned about rezoning issues the commissioners said they had no control over: a proposed campground in Indian Springs and the expansion of the Pinesburg Quarry.

"In some of those rezoning cases, we have had to explain that we can't really look at that. But otherwise, we have learned about things through these meetings that probably otherwise wouldn't have come up," Commissioner James F. Kercheval said.

Commissioner Kristin B. Aleshire said the commissioners should not be overly concerned about turnout.

"It will be what it is, regardless. The difference is that when we're out in the towns, we get to hear directly from residents in that area," Aleshire said.

Aleshire has been a strong advocate of public access to the commissioners' meetings. He said the county needs to expand on the evening meetings by televising its weekly meetings, as well as the meetings of other boards and commissions, such as the Washington County Planning Board.

"If we truly are to be a county of full public disclosure and access, we don't just stop at night meetings (in the county's towns)," Aleshire said.

The evening meetings, which were pushed by several commissioners during their campaigns for office in 2006, are not entirely new.

The county commissioners are required by law to hold at least 10 meetings per year in the county's towns, according to County Attorney John M. Martirano.

Previous boards of county commissioners held tax set-off meetings every year to announce rebates for municipalities that offer services similar to what the county provides.

However, those meetings provided minimal time for public input.

Martirano said the current board of county commissioners wanted to hold evening meetings that would be purely for public comment.

"These agendas are just about getting out and hearing what the public has to say," Martirano said.

Barr said he hopes attendance will improve as more people hear about the meetings.

Commissioner Terry L. Baker said the county could increase turnout by holding evening meetings in Hagerstown and scheduling more meetings in the county's larger towns.

"If the citizens aren't getting to the meetings, we need to do what we can to get the meetings to the citizens," Baker said.

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