Focus on Talbot: Bad Government in Broad Daylight by Dan Watson

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In March the County Council again demonstrated a troubling willingness to ignore proper procedures with impunity. (I ask readers to forgive the lag in reporting this story, but accuracy with this kind of sensitive issue means obtaining transcripts, which are not immediately available.)

At its March 4th meeting, the County Council hosted a “presentation” from the Talbot Watermen’s Association and listened for almost an hour to requests for official letters of support or opposition to 19 bills before the legislature. The Council heard only from that Association and from Rob Newberry, President of the Delmarva Fisheries Association…who spoke also on behalf of his people in Dorchester, Kent, Queen Anne’s and Somerset Counties.

At the conclusion of the presentation, Corey Pack, President of the County Council, commenced to have the Council vote on sending the 19 requested letters on the spot. [”I’m going to do them one at a time, just run straight down through them. What I’m going to do it is read the Bill [number], ask if there is a motion…” Transcript 69:19]

But for Pete Lesher [“Do we need to act on these today?” Transcript 70:3], the presenters, based on the tone of the meeting, would have gotten their way right there, 19 times. Instead, after some squabbling about how long the watermen could wait, voting was deferred a week.

At its March 12th meeting, the Council approved the letters as requested, but for those that had already become moot. Some requests were approved 5-0, some 4-1 (Lesher opposed, always with reasons stated). One vote was 3-2, apparently due to some confusion.

Here’s why this episode reflects poorly on the Council:

The Council—purposefully, by design–heard from only one interest group, when the Council knew full well that the issues are very complex, that other respected Talbot County organizations hold opposing, evidence based, points of view, and that many individual Talbot citizens would have something to say about the issues. There was no public hearing on an important public matter.

While it was not literally done behind closed doors (unlike earlier letters sent to the Legislature), this was handled in a manner as secretive as possible. An email went out at the very close of business (4:58 PM!) on Friday March 1st setting forth an agenda for a Council meeting to be held on the following Monday at 2:00, at which time the Council would hear (and intended to act upon) arguments from a single interest group.

The “presentation” was not a public hearing. It was not on the Meeting Agenda as a public hearing, nor advertised as such. No other organization, of several engaged in the issues at hand, was invited to speak. These may have included ShoreRivers, Marylanders Grow Oysters, Eastern Shore Land Conservancy, Chesapeake Bay Foundation (“CBF”), various scientists, and others.

At the end of the presentation Mr. Pack did suddenly interject this: “I’m going to allow just some brief public comment. Anyone want to come up and use the mike? I’m going to hold you to two minutes….” [Transcript 67:15.] Of course no one responded since it was not advertised as a public hearing and virtually no even one knew about the meeting. Mr. Pack’s interjection certainly was insufficient to turn the one-sided presentation into a public hearing.

At the March 12th meeting, as the Council tried to sort through what legislation was still open for comment, the Council again heard from the Watermen’s representative and Newberry. A citizen in the audience raised a point of order and, being recognized, said, “If the Council is going to entertain comments…the Council should be even handed and allow others within the audience to also comment…”

To this Mr. Pack replied: “We did have a work session on this on March 4th. All of these bills were discussed at that time. That did allow for public comment at that time. So, at this time…this is not open for public comment.” [Transcript 45:1] Mr. Pack was wrong to imply that the matter had already undergone public comment. The “presentation” and Council’s discussion were in a regular Council Meeting, where neither the agenda nor any notice invited public comment. But for a de minimums invitation to “come up to the mike” (which got zero response), the Council showed not the slightest openness to hear, much less seriously consider, differing points of view.

So what’s the Big Deal? In its first 120 days this Council undertook public business completely in the dark. Here, by contrast, the Council voted in public, but after hearing only from a single, select interest group, and actively misleading the public into thinking the Council had taken meaningful public comment. This is not the conduct Talbot’s citizens really expect as our leaders go about the public’s business.

(By the way, CBF did ultimately email some comments on the listed bills, which arrived after the meeting on the 4th when the Council had intended to approve the letters. CBF’s comments were never referred to in the March 12th meeting or elsewhere. Nevertheless, in the closing minutes of the March 12th meeting Mr. Davilio, rightly sensitive to the one-sided nature of what had unfolded earlier that evening, mentioned CBF’s email, saying “I greatly appreciate hearing from both sides…” Mr. Pack chimed in, conveying no sense of irony: “I would echo those words…and any time we do a work session we’ll always leave some time for interested parties to give us some comment and some feedback.” [Transcript: 77:1.])

Dan Watson is the former chair of Bipartisan Coalition For New Council Leadership and has lived in Talbot County for the last twenty-five years. 

 

 

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Letters to Editor

  1. I don’t know this writer Dan Watson from Adam, but this is the second time in a couple months that he has pointed out a very well researched, well articulated and and concerning set of actions our new County Council has taken that appears to reflect a considerably less-than-balanced, less-than-thorough, collecting of community input before taking a position with the State in the name of Talbot County citizens. ie speaking or writing or taking a position with the State that appears to reflect the general position of the Talbot County citizenry when indeed the citizenry as a whole has not weighed in on the issue whatsoever. I find these actions of the new Council to be troubling, and am glad that this Mr. Watson is willing to take so much time trying to determine just what the Council is doing here.

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