HANCOCK COUNTY — Some of the candidates running for Hancock County Council are calling for more transparency in local government.
But the incumbents say the current council is completely open with its constituents.
Three at-large seats on the Hancock County Council are up for grabs Nov. 8, and voters will elect three of the six candidates running. On the ballot are Democrats Rita Johnson and Randy Jones, Republican incumbents Debbie Bledose and Kent Fisk and Martha Vail, also a Republican. Zachary LaFavers is running as a write-in candidate.
The council holds the county’s purse strings, deciding how and when to spend taxpayer dollars on behalf of Hancock County.
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Johnson, Vail and LaFavers say local government officials could be more transparent with taxpayers as they make those decisions.
Johnson said she’ll make improving openness a priority if she’s elected. Johnson, who has been attending council meetings since she decided to run for office, said she often can’t hear council members during their monthly meetings because of the acoustics in the commissioners room at the courthouse annex. That concerns her, as it suggests even members of the public who attempt to be engaged in local government might not be fully informed.
On top of that, the council’s meeting minutes — which outline what happened during the meeting — aren’t quickly uploaded to the county’s website for residents to view, she said.
As of last week, for example, meeting minutes for the July, August and September meetings hadn’t yet been uploaded to the website. The page was updated Tuesday.
“It’s a public forum, and we can’t hear what they’re saying,” Johnson said. “I go to the website, and I don’t find out what just transpired.”
But Bledsoe said the council is doing all it can to be open about its decisions.
All taxpayers have to do is hop on the Internet to find out what the council is doing, she said. The annual budget is posted there, as well as meeting agendas and minutes.
“County government is totally transparent,” Bledsoe said. “There isn’t anything they can’t find out.”
Fisk agreed, saying government officials don’t hold back any information from the public.
In every campaign, transparency is an issue that gets brought up by candidates who don’t hold public office, he added.
Public meetings are conducted monthly, and Fisk said he doesn’t often hear from people who can’t be at a meeting but want to share their opinion on a specific issue with him.
And officials are elected to represent constituent’s wishes so they don’t have to be at every meeting, he said.
There are plenty of ways for the public to learn about what county officials are doing, he said.
But some candidates argue just posting meeting minutes on the website isn’t enough, especially when many residents can’t make the monthly meeting, if even they want to.
Vail said if she’s elected, she’ll recommend the council hold at least three evening meetings a year to offer more residents a chance to be involved in the process.
The current meeting time of 8:30 a.m. isn’t convenient for the working public, she said.
She also said some members of the current council sit quietly through meetings too often; she expects leaders to be actively engaged in the process, and she promises to ask questions about important topics if elected.
Currently, she doesn’t always understand the process the council follows to make decisions, and members don’t walk the public through it during the meeting, she said.
“Some don’t ever say a word,” she said of the current council members. “You need to be listening and questioning, and that’s what I hope to do.”
LaFavers said some council members have become too comfortable. He wants representatives who address every issue that comes before them with complete curiosity and urgency, which is sometimes lacking, he said.
He promises to always be curious and to act on issues in a timely manner if he’s elected.
Hancock County Council and board of commissioner meeting agendas and minutes, as well as the budget, can be accessed on the county’s website at hancockcoingov.org.