County committed to keeping public informed

Recently, some questions have been raised about changes I recommended in York County Council procedures regarding road project presentations. I would like to clarify what appear to be misperceptions about this recommendation, its intended purpose and its implementation. I'd like to make sure any disagreements are based on a factual understanding of the intended process. Of course, I'm also available to answer any questions anyone might have.

Perhaps we should begin with the fact that the proposed new procedures have yet to be agreed upon or implemented. Following the Nov. 5 council meeting, I was asked whether my recommendations were to be implemented and whether a council vote was needed to do so. I replied this was a procedural matter and no formal vote was required, that I had yet to discuss the matter with all the council members individually but my general impression was the council was willing to try the procedures I had recommended.

This remains the status today. No presentations are scheduled for the next council agenda so resolving this procedural question is not an immediate priority. There are a number of other matters needing more attention right now.

The proposed changes will not limit the openness of road project planning or the availability of information to the public. As my report indicated, the recommended presentations would continue to be listed on a public agenda and they would be open to the public and all media (including television reporters if they so choose). The presentations simply would no longer be part of the formal council meeting for the reasons outlined below. However, they would not be hidden from public scrutiny in any way and media access would not be curtailed.

Road presentations should not occur much later at night than is presently the case. Road projects are currently presented during the new business portion of the council's agenda. This is followed only by committee reports and the consent agenda which normally take just a few minutes to conclude. The presentations would shift until after any executive session that might be held. However, the council has recently been limiting the items it schedules for executive sessions, electing to move a number of items that could lawfully be discussed in executive session to the public agenda instead. Council meetings have not lasted past about 9:30 p.m. during my tenure as county manager.

Finally, the explicit purpose for this change is actually to enhance public input into road project planning and not to limit it. While we certainly live in a television-focused society and have come to expect 30-second sound bite messages, this is not always the best vehicle for public involvement. It is critically important for council members to see and understand the options and alternatives that will be presented for public comment in advance of the public meetings. They need to be prepared to address constituent questions that are certain to follow such a meeting. They also deserve an opportunity to exercise their responsibility for input and oversight into this staff process.

However, if the public sees a televised formal presentation made to the council coupled with any preliminary council comments about the alternatives presented, this can't help but suggest that any public hearing that follows is only for show. After all, from the general public's perspective, the council already has weighed in with their opinions, and it's only human nature for individual citizens to wonder how much their voice may matter at that point.

I do not want that public perception to take hold or to grow. Many road alternatives have been modified and refined based on community input, and we want to foster more individual involvement, not less. To promote this participation, we need to emphasize that the council's role at this point is not to make any decisions but only to be briefed about the alternatives that are planned for submission to and comment by the public.

The intention is not to keep the sausage making hidden from the public; it is to avoid making any sausage at all during these preliminary, briefing meetings.