Jun 10, 2018

Transparent Government Request

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Our elected officials, including our State Senator George Edwards, our Delegate Wendell Beitzel, and our Garrett County Commissioners give regular reports to the Chamber of Commerce on matters of public interest where people have to pay to hear the elected officials share their views. This includes the Commissioners’ report on economic development, their annual report on the state of the county, and the report by Sen. Edwards and Del. Beitzel on the legislative accomplishments of the legislative session in Annapolis. The Commissioners also hold most of their meetings at 4pm, when most people are at work and cannot attend; and at those meetings the agenda calls for FIVE minutes of public comment or FIVE minutes for “public hearings” on various topics.

 

Recently, the Garrett County Commissioners, at the request of the Democratic Club, gave their report concerning their vision for the county’s economic development to a free public forum open to the public, but this only occurred eight months after they had given that same report to the Chamber. Nearly 100 people attended this public presentation at Garrett College, indicating that the public is indeed interested. And evidence demonstrates that many more people attend the Commissioners’ regular meetings when they are held in the evening and the agenda reflects a real desire to solicit citizen input.

 

This is not intended as a criticism of the Chamber, but rather of the elected officials with respect to transparency in government. It might be fine to give a report at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce, but do it at a public meeting, or require the Chamber to invite the public and make their attendance free. (After all, the Chamber receives $800,000 of taxpayer money; in return, you’d think we the public could attend meetings of public interest without paying extra.)

 

Some people say that the public is not interested. However, current procedures do not encourage citizen participation in our public business. We would like to see public officials striving to inform and engage the citizenry.  The commissioners have agreed to give another “private” briefing to the Chamber on the state of the county on July 10.  They should cancel that meeting and schedule a free public forum open to all citizens to hear the commissioners talk about the state of the county.

 

Bob and Mary Helen Spear, Swanton, MD

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  • The Garrett County Democratic Club hosted a non-partisan informational public forum to discuss economic development in Garrett County. After a presentation by Commissioner Hinebaugh, those in attendance asked questions of the commissioners, and approximately 25 percent of attendees completed a “before and after” survey form.​ ​There were several recurring issues raised during the question period and in the survey responses. Many people are concerned about jobs in the county. During his presentation, however, Commissioner Hinebaugh minimized this concern and claimed there were more job openings in the county than there were people looking for jobs. The county, however, does not seem to have any sort of workforce development effort to help match people looking for work with available job openings. ​Another issue that came up repeatedly was the need for jobs that pay a living wage with benefits. Commissioner Hinebaugh presented information documenting low wages in Garrett County compared to the rest of Maryland. Specifically, average weekly pay in the trade, transportation and utilities sector in Garrett County is 65 percent of the state average; in leisure and hospitality sector it is 73 percent of the state average; in education and health it is 72 percent of the state average; and in the local government sector it is 71 percent of the state average.   Average weekly wages in smaller sectors in the economy compare less favorably to corresponding state averages. For example, jobs in professional and business services are 7.2 percent of employment in the county, but their average weekly wages are just 55 percent of the state average; similarly, manufacturing employment is 8 percent of employment and average wages are just 53 percent of the state average and financial activities account for 4.8 percent of employment and average wages are just 36 percent of the state average. In response to a question by Judy Carbone about wage gender equity and the abysmal statistic that women in Garrett County make 69 cents for every dollar men make (the national average is 82 cents), the commissioners admitted that they hadn't been aware, let alone thought about how to work on improving it. ​Nationally, as the unemployment rate declines there is increasing pressure to raise wages and benefits to attract qualified workers. That does not seem to be happening in Garrett County. Why are wages in the county consistently significantly lower than wages in the state?   Paying a living wage to workers in Garrett County, along with needed benefits, was not one of the overarching goals these commissioners set for themselves at the beginning of there term. We need to have elected officials who are aware of, and concerned about, the challenges faced by everyday hard-working citizens of Garrett County.   Betty Pritt, President Garrett County Democratic Club
  • Nearly 100 residents attended a recent public forum on economic development. Last September, the commissioners made a similar member-only presentation to a private company. The Democratic Club believes that since economic development impacts everyone in the county, the entire community should be involved in such discussions. That is why the club organized this public forum, so everyone could get information on what the commissioners are doing for economic development. Commissioner Edwards acknowledged in his opening remarks how unusual it is for Republicans and Democrats to discuss anything in such a non-partisan way. The commissioners and community should be applauded for the constructive way they participated in the discussion. Commissioner Hinebaugh, however, indicated he does not want too much citizen participation in developing an economic plan for the county. Given the level of interest and participation by those in attendance, I disagree. We have experience with 10 or 12 people sitting behind closed doors to develop an economic strategy for the county. It has not worked out well, according to the information presented by the commissioners. Most of the commissioners’ presentation documented several challenges the county faces in terms of economic development — e.g., a continued decline in our population over the last four years, labor participation rates stayed low, wages stayed low while jobs go unfilled. No evidence was presented to suggest they made any progress toward the goals they set for themselves the first month of their tenure to increase the county’s population to help stabilize schools, attract businesses and families, and grow the tax base. I was surprised that the commissioners did not talk about any major achievements and did not present a vision going forward. It might not be surprising if one remembers that the first two-thirds of their tenure was spent pushing racking as the solution to all the county’s economic problems. The citizens did not buy that strategy and neither did the state legislature. It seems the commissioners have no Plan B. According to information presented, only 1.9 percent of the county’s budget goes toward economic development; more than half of that amount goes to the Chamber of Commerce to promote tourism at the lake. So there is not really a lack of financial resources, as claimed in their presentation — it is how they choose to allocate existing resources that is important. Many left the forum concerned about the economic future of the county. The commissioners did not reveal any sort of vision on how to tackle the challenges they face, and seemed willing to continue to exclude citizens from discussions about economic development which impacts their daily lives. Michael Bell Oakland
  • The Comprehensive Plan for Garrett County is getting a face-lift and the public was invited to participate last night at Garrett College. A "Visioning" session asked for public input and suggestions to update the decade-old plan. The purpose of the Comprehensive Plan is to establish target goals and establish milestones with a vision for County development as a whole. Attendees were asked to rate what they felt was most important to them and make suggestions if certain areas were left unaddressed. Initial priorities were collected from County stakeholders to stimulate conversation. (pictured above) Representatives from Garrett County Planning and Land Management, and two consulting firms, AECOM and Downstream Strategies , facilitated participation with four stations that invited input from county residents. Future sessions are planned but not yet scheduled. You can visit the County site for updates. What's important to you as the Garrett County Comprehensive Plan is under reconstruction? See what components are included in a county plan. VIEW OUTLINE See article in The Garrett County Republican .

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