Letters: County using COVID-19 to stifle public
Each July, we have two budget workshops that set the maximum millage rate to be finalized at a future budget adoption hearing. The Concerned Citizens has been working budget workshops for 14 years, researching countywide issues and communicating best financial practices to the commission members and leadership. The budget workshop is the single most important time to make critical decisions for our next budget year. I have now been informed the public will be banned from a physical presence at the workshops, much as the public has been banned from looking their commissioners in the eye and speaking to them for every other current public meeting.
The world is a different place than it was not so very long ago. Sadly, our leaders too often set us upon one another, rather than give good reliable advice that does not change like the flavor of the week. Franklin County finances have been damaged, not by illness, but by the decisions made, or not made, in the current and future planning to deal with the effects of COVID-19. Make no mistake about it; the financials for the County will suffer from COVID for an extended period of time.
Property taxes, as set by the value of the County Tax Digest multiplied by the millage rate, could see a significant rise if advance planning and actions are not undertaken now.
I have reached out to County Coordinator Michael Morón and asked for the Concerned Citizens to be able to participate in person at the budget hearings. I received the following answer that states in part:
“…the board will continue the current process of using Communications Media Technology (CMT) for all public meetings, workshops, and public hearings until it deems that the public, staff, and the board members health and safety are not at risk. This CMT process allows for public participation via a conference call system and real time viewing of the meetings via a live-stream link. As stated by during previous meetings, calling or emailing any or all of the commissioners or county staff is still an option to communicate your concern, suggestion, and/or question on a particular matter.”
Not at risk? We don’t understand why, with masks and social distancing, a few representative people cannot be allowed into the chamber to participate in person, perhaps controlled by reservations. Too often, the only dialogue commissioners hear is their own voices that simply ratify Groupthink. Commissioners simply don’t or can’t know everything about sound accounting practices and appropriate budgeting.
In fact, in an advisory opinion by the Attorney General of Florida, it was stated that “a public meeting is a marketplace of ideas, so that the governmental agency may have sufficient input from the citizens who are going to be affected by the subsequent action of the [public agency]"
Here in Franklin County, we have lost that very important guarantee that the Florida Constitution sets out. Yes, put reasonable rules in place to protect health and safety. But these meetings are for the people, not just for your commissioners. Franklin County commissioners have been tamping down access to their government over the last three years by severely minimizing public comment and discourse. COVID-19 was the ideal excuse for them to actually sever your rights to be heard in person. Being confined to a one-way telephone line for one to three minutes at the whim of the chairman does not representative democracy make!
Call your elected representative. Tell them it is vital the representative public be allowed to participate in the budget workshops this year and every year. Remind them it is an election year and the issue of public access is a nonpartisan one. COVID is going to be around for the foreseeable future. The current status quo being mandated by the county commissioners cannot and should not be accepted.
The Concerned Citizens researches issues of critical concern to Franklin County taxpayers. Commissioners, allow us to do our research and present our findings as in past years.
Allan J. Feifer
Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, Inc.