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Wednesday, 20 October 2010 20:02

Sometimes public comment just muddies the water

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When Haywood county commissioners decided a few weeks ago to adopt new rules guiding public comment at their meetings, some cried foul. I wondered what took them so long.

The Smoky Mountain News and most of our brethren in the print news business in this region take very seriously our role as local government watchdogs. The very fact that there are so many newspapers in the mountains that retain what some might regard as an old-school attitude about this fourth estate tradition only means good things for readers and citizens. It’s rare that public officials in the mountains can stray from accepted rules of behavior and not get called out by someone, either in a news story, an editorial or column, or a letter to the editor from an irate constituent.

In my world order, that is just as it should be.

Treating as sacred the process of open government does not, however, mean that elected officials have to conduct their business amid a backdrop of incessant, often irrelevant, time-consuming complaints from their constituents. A true democracy can indeed be very messy, so it has to adopt rules to keep things both civil and efficient.

Of course elected officials, county commissioners included, have to listen to the public — especially when the public is pissed off about something they have done. It comes with the territory. If these new rules were in any way written so that it was obvious that the intent was to squelch public debate, then we’d be raising more hell than anyone.

In Haywood County, though, some meetings have been opened with up to two hours of comment on a wide variety of issues, some relevant and some very irrelevant. County employees, those with business before the board, and commissioners themselves have their time wasted. Often the public comment session is more about grandstanding than trying to get a word in with election officials about an important issue.

We will always be the first in line to stand up for the public’s right to open government, including access to elected officials. But we still have to go by rules that let government be as efficient as possible. The guidelines adopted by commissioners will at least keep the meetings moving along more smoothly.

And those with a beef can always take the time to meet privately with their elected officials. Truth be told, those one-on-one meetings will usually accomplish more than a few minutes at a podium during a commissioner meeting.

•••

It’s one of those seemingly contradictory ideas, but one that is wise: logging at the Waynesville watershed will provide environmental benefits.

The Waynesville watershed contains some of the purest water in the state, and the town has locked up nearly 8,000 acres in a conservation easement to protect its drinking water source. But that easement contained language that allows limited logging, and it was a controversial plan when it was approved in a 2005 by a 3-2 vote of aldermen.

Now the rubber is hitting the road, so to speak, as a plan to cut white pines on about 50 acres of the watershed is up for consideration by town leaders. Despite the worries of some that the logging will do more damage than good, the wise management of this watershed — including some logging — should make the forest healthier.

Yes, the town stands to reap some money from the logging. However, the agreement put in place five years ago does not allow town leaders to consider potential profit from logging as a factor in their management decisions.

Modern forestry and the old logging of bygone years are as different as night and day. This is a plan to make the forest healthier and thereby increase chances that the water in the reservoir will remain clean and viable as a drinking water source. It’s just a good idea.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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