Meeting changes step in direction toward better governance


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Both our city and county governing boards made changes to their meeting schedules recently that appear to reflect greater sensitivity and appreciation for more open and accountable government.

First, Elizabeth City City Council voted several weeks ago to hold a public hearing on next year’s city budget on Feb. 18 before the actual spending plan is prepared. Councilors hope the earlier public hearing, which isn’t required by state law, spurs more citizens to weigh in on how they’d like their tax dollars spent — before those decisions are actually made.

Then the Pasquotank Board of Commissioners voted last week to change the starting time of their meetings from 7 p.m. to 6 p.m. While meeting time changes are always suspect — usually such changes only benefit elected officials and appointed staff who want to go home earlier — Pasquotank commissioners seem genuine in their hope this one will result in more members of the public showing up for commissioners’ meetings.   

Of course, not everyone was keen about the changes. Council’s vote to hold the initial public hearing was 5-3, while commissioners’ vote was even closer — 4-3.  

By far the most outrageous reaction to the changes came from City Councilor Johnnie Walton, who all but said citizens don’t deserve a say in what the city’s budget should include, that they should just shut up and accept what he and other councilors give them.  

Walton said he was perfectly happy restricting input on next year’s city budget to “eight or nine people” — the number of councilors plus the mayor — and if any citizen wanted to chime in on the subject, they could always privately bring their input to council members or use the public comment time at other meetings to express themselves. 

Then, in what could be among the most-quotable expressions of out-of-touch arrogance ever to leave the lips of an official, elected or appointed, Walton told fellow councilors this: “We are the owners of this business, y’all,” he said. “It’s not the people coming up to say, ‘I want another boat ramp, I want this, I want that.’ They shouldn’t even be in the conversation.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Walton not only believes citizens don’t own their own government, they “shouldn’t even be in the conversation” when it comes to deciding what that government does.

Walton went on to say he was concerned about persons — we assume he meant citizens — showing up at the public hearing and having “undue influence” over council’s budget talks, and that if “someone comes up and tries to influence us, I’m not going to allow that.”

Given a chance later to explain himself or say that he’d been misunderstood, Walton left no doubt about his meaning. He doesn’t oppose public input on next year’s budget, he said. He just thinks it should come to him or other councilors privately, not be expressed in public at a public meeting. Allowing too many citizens to chime in with ideas of what they’d like their money spent on could open “a can of worms,” he said.  

Thankfully, a majority of council doesn’t see things the same way. At least two others did, however. Both Councilors Darius Horton and Gabriel Adkins — reliable Walton allies on most matters — voted with their colleague against adoption of council’s budget meetings schedule, which includes the Feb. 18 public hearing.

It’s hard to understand why these three public servants would vote against more open and accountable government — other than they don’t believe in it. Of course, they also may be expressing some defensiveness over past spending decisions.

Asked by Walton why he was recommending the earlier public hearing, City Manager Rich Olson said it was because Horton had made a last-minute request, prior to adoption of the current year’s budget last spring, to include $50,000 to reopen the city’s homeless shelter. Including a request that size in an almost-completed spending plan required some last-minute shuffling, Olson said.

Regardless of whether it’s defensiveness or something else, there is no legitimate reason to oppose the early public hearing on next year’s city budget. Olson’s goal in suggesting one seems reasonable, practical and straight-forward: find out what citizens want before city officials start trying to figure out whether it can be paid for and how. If that’s not a clear step forward for better governance, we don’t know what would be. Shame on Walton, Horton and Adkins for not seeing that.