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Wasting time in the name of government

If you’ve ever attended a local government meeting in Lincoln County, the odds are good that your time has been wasted by a lot of nonsense.

It’s not that our local boards — the Board of County Commissioners, the Board of Education, the City Council, the planning boards and various other governmental committees — don’t accomplish important work and hear from the public on crucial issues during their monthly or twice-monthly sessions. They do. But they also do a lot of other stuff that isn’t a good use of the public’s time.

Lengthy reports or presentations are often read into the record, sometimes taking up an hour or more of time. In many situations these presentations have been impossible to appreciate during the session, with tiny print displayed on a blurry screen or images that move too quickly to comprehend. The meeting format isn’t ideal for digesting complicated reports. We’re not calling any names, but we have more than one local board member who has made a habit of nodding off during this part of meetings; we don’t blame them.

However, through the miracle of technology, an email can transmit a digital version of anything from a Word document to a Power Point presentation to board members, as well as to any citizens who would like a copy, without additional cost. Whoever would have otherwise made the presentation could instead appear before the board for questioning. If board members, the press and interested citizens can view such materials in advance instead of during the meeting, not only will less time be wasted, but a more intelligent and transparent governing process and well-informed public debate should result.

Various declarations honoring a particular day or the work of a group or individual are often read and pontificated upon at some length during meetings. Such symbolic measures could easily be handled in the non-time-consuming consent agendas – the laundry list of routine business getting the boards’ rubberstamp without discussion at most meetings. That would defeat part of the purpose of such declarations, which is for politicians to grandstand. In several cases, board members have confided afterward that they had no idea what they were passing a symbolic resolution about. If it’s that meaningless, then why bother?

Individuals or groups, especially youngsters, are often brought before the boards to be saluted for accomplishments and have their pictures taken with elected officials. Some boards get this type of thing over with without much hassle, but others draw it out to great length. Whether it’s an honor to have your picture taken with a politician or even desirable to have our youth in the presence of some of the mischief that goes on at board meetings is doubtful. Perhaps it’s good for our children to hear the public comments portion of meetings, when citizens have been known to stand up and tell the officeholders where they can go and why, but for some reason the politicians tend to schedule that for after the kids have left the building. If public officials want to pose for a photo at some other time, they can easily do so. Such empty gestures are tantamount to kissing babies and shaking hands. It’s politicking, not governing, and it has no place within the governing process.

Inflating sessions of local government in these ways may seem harmless, but doing so has several unfortunate effects:

  • Drawn out meetings discourage public attendance. Those wanting to hear an important issue addressed or make a comment are often frustrated by the long wait.
  • Inflated sessions can make it appear that a board has done a lot, when in fact it may have done very little.
  • Board members become exhausted during lengthy sessions, rushing through sometimes important business at the end that probably deserved more serious attention.
  • Taxpayer-paid staff are often forced to faithfully remain at a session for many needless hours, sometimes at extra expense to the public, but always at a personal cost, detracting from their time with their families.
  • Building resources must be used for an extended period, driving up costs for lighting and temperature control.
  • And yes, by way of disclosure, extra-long meetings waste the time of the news media as well.

We take local government seriously, as we’re hope most citizens do. Most of the time-consuming activities discussed here are well-intentioned. But better planning, organization and division of governing activity from symbolic gestures would go a long way toward more efficient use of public resources, as well as result in a more focused and smoothly operating government that’s transparent, accessible and responsive to the people.

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