Quite a few local residents have faithfully attended City Commission meetings during my time covering the news here in Chanute. Some of them were chronic complainers looking for something to grouse about, but plenty of these people genuinely engaged with local politicians to attempt to make their community a better place to live.
It has always baffled me that these concerned citizens rarely focused any attention on the county government. As dysfunctional as politicians in this city can seem, the process by which the county is currently governed is even more worthy of citizen engagement and public criticism.
The main reason the city government gets more public attention than the county government is that it’s fairly easy to attend a meeting at 7 pm every other Monday, knowing that the meeting will usually be kept to a length reasonable enough to get home for the second half of Monday Night Football. It is not, however, easy at all to get up and go to a county meeting at 8 am every Friday morning for a six-hour county snooze-fest, especially since most people would have to miss work to do so.
I have long held that these meetings are intentionally scheduled on Friday mornings to keep the public from knowing how much is said but how little is actually done. County commission meetings are unstructured, uninspiring, and mostly unproductive governmental gatherings. Commissioners know that if the public did skip out on their jobs or day-to-day activities in order to attend, they might notice how much these meetings resemble gatherings of grumpy old men who gather at local coffee klatches to complain about what’s going on in the community. If local coffee drinkers were given the power to vote on items that affect the job duties of county employees and the lives of area taxpayers, or to ask county employees whatever intrusive questions they wanted answered, this would exactly replicate what happens at these meetings. Old white guys offering opinions about subjects on which they have no actual expertise can be observed in a variety of venues in the county, and this is especially prevalent in the Commission room of the Neosho County Courthouse every Friday morning.
Plus, holding meetings when most people are at work conveniently limits the number of productive citizens who could conceivably challenge these Commissioners in elections.
There are other ways that these meetings could be improved in addition to moving them to a more sensible time. An open bar for those in attendance would be a nice start. Commissioners could try to create an actual meeting agenda, then strictly stick to it. They could limit the time allotted to each particular agenda item. This would demonstrate that Commissioners value the time of the county department heads who attend these meeting. It would also result in local newspaper reporters having to spend less time listening to county employee grievances about their current bosses on the Commission.
They could also try raising their public esteem by developing a new system for approving voucher purchases. The way these currently work in the county is that all three Commissioners have to sign an individual voucher for each purchase made by each department in the county. This methodology only results in Commissioners being put in the position to micromanage and second-guess each employee purchase by their own uninformed opinions about what departments need, which equipment works most effectively to do a certain job, or which restaurant’s waitresses might be too attractive for county employees to tip when eating out of town.
No other form of government requires its decision-makers to personally sign each voucher this way. School boards, City Commissions, the Legislature, Congress, hospital boards – they have financial reports prepared on spreadsheets by a professional that outline all financial information. This still allows people to have access to financial information and to ask necessary questions about the spending of taxpayer money, but it cuts down on the necessity for weekly five-hour meetings.
There is also no reason that an hour or two of every meeting should be spent interrogating the project manager of the Road and Bridge Department; no other department in the county apparently requires discussion in such detail. I have learned so much about the chip and seal process and the condition of the county’s graders that I feel qualified to apply to be the department’s director. Taxpayers would be better served if project managers would give Commissioners necessary information for about 10 minutes, and then get back to actually working on the county’s roads and bridges. Commissioners who had additional questions about what the department was doing could individually go to the Road and Bridge shop and ask employees themselves.
This kind of common-sense approach of having Commissioners actually talk to the many very knowledgeable and caring county employees isn’t done nearly enough. That might be one of the reasons Neosho County has the issues that it does. Perhaps, doing so would ease the Commissioners’ decision-making, and erase the need for these mostly-pointless six-hour Friday morning meetings.
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