Too often the town board conducts its meetings without any input from the public because they aren’t present or involved in the daily operations of town government. Alderman Rick Bryson said he’d like people to see all of the good things the town board is working on instead of focusing on the one polarizing issue of Fry Street.
“Recently we have allowed rafting and kayak operators to operate from the town island at no charge to anyone. We extended garbage pickup on weekends to accommodate restaurants. We enabled a radio broadcasting company to attach a repeater to a pole beside the reservoir,” Bryson said.
He said the town also approved a variance to its own building regulations to enable a third gas station to be built in town and played a key role in getting the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to designate Bryson City as the latest “Trout City.”
“This is a direct benefit to businesses, particularly the outdoor businesses, in our town,” he said. “The WRC estimates that fishermen spend approximately $170 a day when they come to fish.”
Although she can understand how business owners might feel their opinions don’t count unless they live in the city limits, Alderman Heidi Woodard said the town board should — and does — listen to business owners in town as well as voters.
“What goes through our board directly affects them and they do employ a lot of town residents. So by affecting businesses it affects voters,” she said.
Alderman Janine Crisp said the board takes its responsibility to residents and business very seriously and tries to way all consequences of its actions.
“Policies, rules, and decisions are made with the best intentions for all involved and while we work for the betterment of all, it would be unwise for us to fail to remember that we have been elected to the chair we sit in and thusly are representatives of those who put us there,” she said.
Bryson admitted that in his opinion, Bryson City residents should be the town’s first responsibility because they depend on the town for good streets, clean water, police protection, fire protection and secure sanitation infrastructure.
“It is up to us to keep the town operational; where we can assist merchants, we are glad to do so as long as their requests do not conflict with the needs of residents,” he said.
Residents and businesses have also complained about public comment not being allowed at town board meetings until the end of the agenda — often after the issue at hand has already been decided — but several alderman don’t seem willing to move public comment to the beginning of the meeting.
Bryson said public comment is at the end of the meetings because the business of the town comes first. However, if someone wants to address a specific issue with the board, they can call the clerk at town hall a week in advance and request to be added to the agenda. Bryson said the town is also working on an email list where residents and businesses can express their opinions even if they can’t attend a board meeting, which he thinks will be helpful.
“As for moving public comment to the beginning of meetings — the order of when things occur in meetings was set before I became a member of the board,” Crisp said.
Woodard, on the other hand, seems to be willing to move public comment to the beginning of the meeting.
“I think that hearing comments prior to votes may help us, as board members, see different sides of issues,” she said. “I believe that if it was requested of the board to adjust the timing for the public comment section, that it would be considered.”
Woodard also recommended people attend the town workshop held once a month because it’s where more discussion takes place before the actual board meeting.
Crisp assures that the board is not making decisions behind closed doors just because it appears little discussion is occurring at the board meetings.
“When the board has an upcoming issue or matter that they will address it is helpful and time-saving when we have done our homework on those issues before meetings,” she said. “That does not mean that the board meets outside of those posted and public meetings. The board is ever aware of open meeting laws and goes to great lengths to make sure that we remain in compliance with those rules.”
Bryson also acknowledged it would be illegal for more than two board members to discuss town business outside of an official meeting. He said the board receives the agenda package for each meeting the morning prior to the meeting and it would be impractical for them to have “off-books” meetings to discuss issues.
“What people see in our meetings are board members reacting to what is on the agenda. The work of the board could hardly be more transparent than it is,” he said.
As for the cramped meeting space, Crisp said the town hall location is sufficient for 99 percent of the board’s meetings. She said the town has moved a few meetings to accommodate larger crowds.
Woodard said if the board continues to see high turnout for meetings, the town many have to look at finding a larger space.
“I would like to see this volume of involvement from our community members so that we can utilize those voices and opinions to assist with the positive forward movement of our beautiful town,” she said.