By Mike Buffington
My minute’s worth of words
Read this quickly. I’ve only got a minute. The speech Nazis are out and about and I can’t talk very long. If I do, they’ll slap me silly.
It’s the Jackson County Board of Education on the prowl, counting words, running a stopwatch to make sure I don’t say too much and that what I do say is done quickly.
Like many public boards, the BOE has policies to limit public comments at its meetings. The issue with the BOE came up again this week when a citizen spoke against the board adopting some new rules to further limit citizen comments.
Slap that man in chains!
Under other circumstances, I might have a little sympathy for the BOE. I’ve sat through many lengthy BOE, county commission and city council meetings where a parade of citizens yak-yak about all kinds of nonsense. It gets boring, repetitive and sometimes silly. And for BOEs, there’s nothing more uncomfortable than having angry parents at a meeting who want to speak out.
But I don’t feel sorry for BOE members and here’s why: This is what they signed up for when they ran for office. This is the price they pay listening to citizens to, in turn, have the authority to make monumental decisions that affect our children and our pocketbooks.
This BOE, in particular, is the largest single taxing authority in Jackson County. It collects and spends more tax dollars from county citizens than any other local public agency. It is twice as large as the entire county government. It is the largest employer in Jackson County. It is an enterprise that affects thousands of students and tens of thousands of property owners.
Yet this massive public agency wants to limit ALL public comments to 30 minutes or less at its meetings.
It refuses to hear any complaint about school system employees from citizens at its meetings.
It demands that comments made verbally should also be submitted in writing.
It demands that if a group is upset about something, it must have a single spokesman who is limited to five minutes. Otherwise, other speakers on the same subject will be limited to one minute each.
The board demands a three-day notice if you wish to speak to it.
The board doesn’t want to hear your problems unless you’ve already discussed it through the proper administrative chain of command.
The board may ask questions of the speaker, but it has a policy of not commenting or responding at its meetings to speakers.
What I’d like to know is just who built the ivory tower from which the BOE now rules its kingdom?
Making this even more infuriating is that this BOE, like every other public agency in Jackson County, has begun going out of town on a regular basis for “retreat” meetings at which it spends several days (and your tax dollars) discussing the public’s business out of the prying eyes of citizens. Now this same board wants to limit what it has to hear from citizens to no more than 30 minutes a meeting after board members have just spent several days talking among themselves out of the public eye?
Then there’s the little detail of the First Amendment. In addition to other freedoms, the First Amendment allows citizens to petition government “for a redress of grievances.”
It does not say you have just five minutes to do that.
It does not say you have to submit your comments in writing or give a three-day notice to be heard.
It does not say you have to jump through administrative hoops before you can talk to your elected officials.
It does not say groups of people with similar concerns have to pick one spokesman.
And don’t give the public some lame excuse that speech limit rules are only designed to “facilitate” an “efficient” board meeting. If you’re not willing to hear from citizens, don’t run for office.
Nobody said that serving on a school board would be easy. It’s one of the most difficult elected positions of any local government. And yes, a lot of the complaints boards hear from citizens are petty, vindictive, narrow-minded or uninformed.
But boards also hear some legitimate issues that deserve to be aired. They hear intelligent questions from parents concerned about their child’s school. They hear about problems that the hired help administrators probably didn’t want them to know about.
Being willing to listen to citizens isn’t just an obscure part of the First Amendment, it’s the smart thing to do if this BOE wants to govern with authority and know what’s really going on.
In fairness, the BOE has seldom strictly enforced its own rules and it has on several occasions scheduled special meetings to hear from angry parents. Still, to have such public comment rules as official board policy sends the wrong message.
Get rid of the speech rules and toss the stopwatch Nazi out the door.
Be willing to listen to citizens, or don’t be surprised if they toss you out the door.
Mike Buffington is editor of The Jackson Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Better jobs will create housing affordability
It’s difficult to know if Jackson County Commissioner Jody Thompson’s call for more “affordable housing” in the county is a populist shrill just before the elections, or a real issue that merits further debate by county leaders.
Thompson alleged at a recent board of commissioners meeting that some of the county’s building codes and mobile home requirements were “anti-affordable homes,” meaning they are too strict and force up the price of housing.
In some places, such as resort communities, the issue of affordable housing is significant. Resort towns often have high real estate costs, but also require a large number of low-income workers. In effect, many of those places have to import cheap labor because there is a lack of local affordable housing.
But that situation does not describe Jackson County. In 2007, the median family income in Jackson County was $55,154 and the median value of housing was $135,728. Even if you factor out much of the older housing and calculate newer units, the income to price ratio is reasonable.
In addition, much of the higher prices of new homes in Jackson County hasn’t been driven by additional regulations, but rather by the rapid rise in land prices from real estate speculation coupled with the rise in raw materials due to world-wide demand.
But Thompson’s point about county regulations regarding mobile homes is valid. For several decades, county leaders have been trying to push out mobile homes as a major part of the county’s housing. That’s because mobile homes typically depreciate in value over time and are taxed differently than built homes. In 2000, some 31 percent of the county’s housing was mobile homes. That percentage no doubt fell with the building boom of 2004-2006, but there are still a significant number of mobile units in the county.
There are those who believe local governments should use their power to artificially push up the cost of housing through strict regulations. The price of housing creates a demographic fault line higher housing costs attract higher income families who typically have more education, greater financial stability and who often step forward to offer community leadership. A lot of people view attracting such demographics as a good thing.
Still, a community has to have a wide mix of demographics and income levels to be successful. Whether blue collar or white collar, it takes all kinds of people doing a variety of jobs to turn the economic wheels in a community.
Governments should not use their power to arbitrarily inflate housing costs through unreasonable regulations. Mr. Thompson complained Jackson County is doing that, but he has not produced evidence to support the comment. If the county is doing this as a matter of policy, it would be of interest to many citizens.
Over the long haul, market forces supply and demand will set the price of local housing. The best way for county leaders to affect the quality of local housing is not through regulations, but rather by creating the kind of community people want to live in and by helping create employment opportunities with higher-paying jobs to give citizens a chance to better their standard of living.