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Jackson commissioners discuss role of open government

Last month the Public Policy Institute at Western Carolina University partnered with The Smoky Mountain News to conduct a poll testing the voter climate in Jackson County.

The results of the poll showed voters had low confidence in county government, but the format of the poll didn’t capture why. Only 33 percent of the registered voters polled had a favorable opinion of county government.

Jackson County Chairman Brian McMahan pointed out that a government approval rating doesn’t mean much if the people being polled don’t know how the county works.

“Most people don’t come to our meetings,” McMahan said. “How do they know what kind of decisions are being made?”

Meanwhile Commissioner Tom Massie said the lack of a frank dialogue about issues sometimes lets political candidates off the hook and other times keeps them from explaining their positions.

“All the candidates say is ‘I’m honest. I’m a good person. I’ll do a great job,’” Massie said. “You really don’t have the opportunity to discuss issues. We don’t have enough chances to go head to head with the public.”

WCU professors Chris Cooper and Gibbs Knotts, who co-authored the poll, wrote in an editorial letter that county politicians have a responsibility to open government up to the public.

“Local politicians should create more opportunities for citizens to learn about county government and for citizens to communicate with their elected officials in a safe and partisan neutral environment,” Knotts and Cooper wrote.

And Smoky Mountain News publisher Scott McLeod talked about how a candid dialogue in the media about politics could help the county confront its challenges.

“Maybe a frank dialogue in the media about leadership and politics — one based on actual poll results from mountain voters — will contribute some solutions to some of our problems, McLeod said.”

With the intention of instigating a deeper discussion about the way local government, the media and the voting public interact, Smoky Mountain News conducted a follow up questionnaire with Jackson County commissioners, asking them five questions that touched on the duties of the county government, the media and the voting public.

Four members of the board –– McMahan, Massie, and Commissioners William Shelton and Joe Cowan –– chose to respond to the questions.


1. What, in your opinion, is the primary responsibility of county government? And how is the role distinct from state and federal government?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

By state statute, the primary responsibility of county government is to provide for the health, safety, and general welfare of the citizens residing within the county’s geographic boundaries. The statute is very broad and has far reaching implications for making budgets and setting tax rates. These taxes are used for law enforcement, social services, the health department, the courts, county administration, planning, veterans affairs and other general administration services.

Counties and their powers are derived from state law and therefore the county is a creation of state government and subject to state laws.


Chairman Brian McMahan

Rather than offer an opinion, I will simply quote how the N.C. Supreme Court defined a county and its role from a legal point of view.

“A County is a body politic and corporate, created by the General Assembly of North Carolina for certain public and political purposes. Its powers as such, both expressed and implied, are conferred by statutes, enacted from time to time by the General Assembly, and are exercised by its Board of Commissioners.... In the exercise of ordinary government functions, [counties] are simply agencies of the State, constituted for the convenience of local administration in certain portions of the State's territory, and in the exercise of such functions they are subject to almost unlimited legislative control, except when the power is restricted by constitutional provisions.”

The “certain public and political purposes” includes, but is not limited to, providing:  the buildings and facilities necessary to conduct the local judicial proceedings of the state, the buildings necessary for both the public K–12 school system and the community college, conducting elections, maintaining property ownership and mortgage records, enforcing much of the state's criminal law through local law enforcement, administering public health and public welfare programs, exercise planning and zoning powers, developing local laws, and etc.

It is the responsibility of the county board of commissioners to exercise and carry out the powers granted to counties by the State.  G. S. 153A-12 states that “except as otherwise directed by law, each power, right, duty, function, privilege and immunity of the corporation [i.e., the county] shall be exercised by the board of commissioners.”

Commissioner Tom Massie

County government’s primary responsibility is to provide the services demanded by the local citizens, which improve our lives, protect our health and safety, and provide for the welfare of society as a whole. Some of the services we provide are purely local decisions: a new park for recreation, for example, or a public building to house a county department. Other services are mandated by state or federal governments that local governments must provide: courtrooms and public school facilities, building code enforcement and sanitation laws, for example. Still other services we provide are regulated by the state or federal government, such as solid waste, OSHA standards, water and sewer permit limitations. Thus, the relationships between the county government and the other levels of government are multifaceted and intertwined. However, one distinction is very clear: County governments are creations of the State of North Carolina and they can only do what the state constitution and legislature allow them to do by statute. 

Commissioner William Shelton

The primary responsibility of county government is summed up pretty well in our mission statement, and that says “To represent the best long-term interests of ALL the citizens of Jackson County by providing effective leadership and clear direction.” We are responsible for being good stewards of the county’s financial and environmental resources, and for clearly articulating a vision for the future of the county. The role of county government is distinct from state and federal because we are on the “front lines” of politics, as we live in and amongst the communities we serve, and deal less in platitudes and more in day-to-day quality of life issues.



2. What is the best way for citizens to bring issues and questions to the county board?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

The best way for citizens to bring issues to the county board is by confronting individual board members and making their wishes known. This should be done face to face if possible. There is no good substitute for this method.

Chairman Brian McMahan

Citizens have several options in respect to bringing issues before the board of commissioners. Those options include:  written appeal (emails or letters), verbal appeal (in person or by telephone) to an individual commissioner, or by public appeal to the board at an official meeting of the board of commissioners. The preferred process would be to contact a county commissioner and ask for an opportunity to discuss an issue. The commissioner then can add the issue to the agenda if necessary. Everyone is invited to participate in the public comments section of the agenda and the public hearings. The board of commissioners is very much interested in hearing from the citizens.


Commissioner Tom Massie

The best ways for a citizen to bring an issue to the attention of the county government are in order of effectiveness:
A) Contact the County manager.  It is his business to look after the day-to-day workings of County government.
B) Attend one of the bi-monthly Commissioners meetings and speak about the issue.  Every meeting has a public comment period, which allows any citizen to address the board about any topic for up to 3 minutes.

C) Call, write or e-mail any or all of the county commissioners about your issue.


Commissioner William Shelton

There are several ways that citizens can bring issues and questions to the county board, including attending meetings, e-mail, writing, or calling. The real question in my mind is how do we get more citizens to become involved? We as a board are very open to public input, both negative and positive, and welcome public opinion as a way to gauge our job performance.



3. What are some ways the county board could open up the discussions around tough, complicated decisions so the public can better understand the work you do?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

The board should be totally transparent with the public and encourage public questions and participation in every way possible. Personally, I miss the question and answer session that was sponsored by the League of Women Voters. Let’s revive this process!

Chairman Brian McMahan

One of the ways that the county can open up the discussion of certain issues is through delayed action.  It has been our policy in Jackson County to have a public hearing for most all ordinances, even if they don’t require one, allowing for the public to comment.  It has also been customary to delay a vote on an issue to the next meeting to allow for the public to have additional opportunity to comment, both verbal and written.  Adequate public discussion is the best way to educate everyone (the public and the elected officials) to the particulars of any issue.

Commissioner William Shelton

This is a good question, because many of the decisions we make are indeed complicated. Communication with the public is crucial, and this is an area where we have perhaps fallen short. I think having a more extensive dialogue with the local press would be helpful, perhaps by offering time at the end of meetings for a “press conference” to give them an opportunity to ask specific questions and gain more clarity or perspective on the issues. However, the local media is only as good as the citizens’ willingness to read or listen to it, and that can be frustrating. Another possibility for opening up the discussion with the public would be looking into televising our meetings, which is already being done in some counties.


4. How can the local media do better in communicating the issues the county faces to the public?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

Stop so much editorializing. Get the facts, get the facts, get the facts! Present the facts to the public and stop trying to influence by grandstanding editorials. 

Chairman Brian McMahan

It is important for the media to relay the happenings of county government to the citizenry. The media often times is the eyes and ears of those that cannot physically attend the meetings of the board of commissioners. It is crucial to remember that while the media is often the eyes and ears of the general public, they are NOT the brain of the general public. Relate the facts and let the public interpret for themselves what has happened and how they feel about it. Editorials and opinions have their place and purpose, but not in the news story, or even in the way the story is being portrayed.


Commissioner Tom Massie

The media must do a better job of digging for the facts behind each issue of interest. Ask for press conferences, ask of in depth interviews on specific issues with the manager and politicians. Ask us what our positions are and why. And if we refuse, then report that to the public. But like wise, it is incumbent on the media to report responses accurately and without prejudice and whenever to explain the complexities, except in opinion pieces.


Commissioner William Shelton

I sometimes think that the local media falls into the same “trap” that the national media has fallen into, and that is that negativity and controversy sell much better than positive news. I appreciate that local media brings crucial and sometimes controversial issues into the eyes of the public. That is a wonderful thing. What gets lost sometimes, sadly, is the realization that most of the county’s business is conducted in a very professional and effective way. I think the citizens would be proud of many things the county does that they never know about because no one is telling that side of the story. One thing the local media could do to “bridge the communication gap” would be to take on more of an educational role. What the general public too often does not realize is that county government is trying to apply policy to various situations in the county. In other words, many of the decisions we make are driven by what is required by state statute, as county governments are actually an arm of the state, and less by emotion or ideology. The local media could do a better job of pointing that out.



5. What is the role of politics and political parties in county government? What should it be?


Commissioner Joe Cowan

The $64,000 question… political parties at the federal, state and local level have become so evil, mean-spirited, and rancorous that most reasonable people in the U.S. no longer listen to political party leaders. This is especially true at the federal level. Thankfully, this is least true at the local levels, because the local public can hold their officials to a greater degree of accountability.

Chairman Brian McMahan

All county commissioners are elected by the people in partisan elections held in November of even-numbered years.  The state constitution does not require that a person be nominated as the candidate of a political party in order to run for the office of county commissioner, however, it is the most common procedure.  For the most part, county government is the least partisan of the federal, state, and county system.  Most issues facing boards of commissioners are not Democrat or Republican issues.  However, the general philosophy and vision of a commissioner most often reflects the values of the local party in which they have chose to be a member of.

Commissioner Tom Massie

Most local issues are non-partisan in nature.  Most are pocketbook issues.  But, political parties are essential to local governments as a way to find interested committed citizens who want to participate in their government and work to make a difference for the benefit of their community.  Our system in this state is designed to work off a recognized two party system.  Independents and less organized parties face other barriers to getting on the ballot than the two main party’s candidates.  This is currently being challenged in court, but it is how it exists today in our state.  The critical factor is that regardless of party affiliation, we must be able to work together (yes, I do mean we need to compromise at times) to achieve positive things for the citizens of our county.

Commissioner William Shelton

As I have met commissioners from across this seven county region, I have found them to be genuine, caring public servants who are simply trying to do what is right for their various communities. As boring as it seems, I have not found a “liar” or a “crook” in the whole bunch, regardless of the political party involved. It is often hard to tell in one on one conversation just what political party a commissioner is associated with, because we are all dealing with similar challenges, and that is where most of the focus lies, not on party politics. That said, I do believe that party politics do play a major role in the big picture. County commissioners share the same constituents as their state and federal counterparts, and must work cooperatively with them, as well as municipalities, to get things done. Party ideology does play a part in setting the tone, or the overall direction of governance as a whole, and that is perhaps as it should be.

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