“Hand in hand with freedom of speech goes the power to be heard, to share in the decisions of government which shape men’s lives.” -Robert Kennedy
On January 3rd, 2017, our newly appointed County Judge/Executive, Dan Ison, presided over his first fiscal court meeting. At the end of the meeting he told the crowd that he wanted to bring public comment back to the fiscal court meetings. I know because I was there. As a Democrat committed to increasing transparency and accessibility, I was impressed by that statement and filled with a little bit of hope that these “public meetings” would truly be public again. I wasn’t the only one that felt that way in attendance that evening as several citizens around me expressed joy at such a change in attitude.
At the fiscal court meeting on February 7th, 2017 public comment was not on the agenda and Judge Ison never called for it. I know because I was there. So I went up to Judge Ison after the meeting had concluded and asked him what the timeline was for bringing public comment back as he had mentioned in January. He informed me that he was waiting on a legal opinion from the County Attorney, Hart Megibben, before taking action on this as he wanted to make sure he was following the law. In an effort to help speed this along I called the County Attorney’s office about a week later to inquire as to the status of this legal opinion. Hart Megibben was unavailable when I called and the lady that I spoke with took down my name and phone number and told me he would return my call. To date, I never received a phone call back.
Being the idealist and the trusting citizen that I am, I held out hope that Judge Ison would follow through with what he said but by the fiscal court meeting on March 7th, 2017 nothing had changed. I know because I was there.
And so shortly before the beginning of the fiscal court meeting on April 4th, 2017 I approached Judge Ison and inquired again of the status of bringing back public comment. Here’s what he said and here’s what you won’t find in any official reporting within this newspaper: He decided that it was best to allow public comment on only the most important and controversial agenda items. So it would be his sole discretion as to whether or not an agenda item warranted public comment. He told me that if such an agenda item met these standards he would allow one speaker for each side to speak for up to 3 minutes.
Folks, that’s not public comment, that’s staged debate.
Before Judge Rothenburger banned public comment a few years ago, it was a dedicated agenda item at the end of every fiscal court meeting. I know because I was there at more than one of these meetings since I developed an interest in local politics back in high school. Anyone that wanted to speak would be recognized for a few minutes to talk about whatever issue they wanted to. This distinction between what was normal practice for decades and what Judge Ison has promised is important. Having true public comment means citizens can speak about any issue. That’s part of the whole goal of getting public comment back into this “public meeting”: to be able to bring grievances before our county officials that they aren’t aware of or aren’t addressing. That’s what the Shelbyville City Council and the Shelby County Board of Education has at every one of their meetings. What Judge Ison has decided is that he will limit public comment only to those issues he deems important. That’s not democratic and it’s certainly not worthy of Shelby County.
For those of you that may be wondering, Shelby County is unique in this regard for a lack of public comment at fiscal court meetings. I have personally confirmed with each of these County Judge/Executive offices in our area that Anderson, Bullitt, Carroll, Hardin, Henry, Nelson, Oldham, Owen, Spencer, Trimble, and Woodford Counties all have public comment as a dedicated agenda item at every fiscal court meeting. So that begs the question why doesn’t Shelby County value public comment as much as the vast majority of counties in our region? The answer is simple: unlike the Shelbyville City Council and the Shelby County Board of Education, the Fiscal Court is either afraid of its own citizens or doesn’t care what they have to say. Regardless of whether you’ve ever attended a fiscal court meeting, this lack of an option for public comment should disturb you. It is making our local government less democratic and providing roadblocks to transparency and accessibility among our county officials. Public comment is the essence of a democracy. Without it democracy suffers.
And so to those of you that believe that your voice should be heard at public meetings, I would only remind you that 2018 is an election year. The filing deadline to run for County Judge/Executive or any other local partisan office is January 30, 2018.