Paperless Freeholder Meetings

There is a lot of talk of cost savings at the county level recently. With the status quo shaken up a bit and a more balanced board, partisan-wise, it seems that some of our elected leaders are now beginning to take their jobs seriously. There is no longer a rubber-stamp or the opportunity for a pretense of fiscal responsibility. The Daily Journal reported on the possibility of “paperless” freeholder meetings.

Sometime in 2012, the county expects to do away with the voluminous paper agendas distributed at meetings to the seven-member Board of Freeholders and the half-dozen or so top administrators who also attend.In their place will be laptops or some other digital device for viewing the material and doing other county-related tasks.

Caveat Emptor. The ominous part of this is the use of digital viewing devices. Jane Jannarone recently heartily defended the texting of elected officials whilst in a public meeting. She claimed, basically, that every freeholder was beyond reproach and would NEVER, EVER be discussing county business privately in text messages during an open public meeting. yeah, and no freeholder would be stupid enough to send naked pictures of himself to women (plural) on the internet.

We have witnessed furious texting by Bob Balicki (in the audience) and Nelson Thompson (seated, in an open public meeting). Were they texting each other? We cannot say for sure. However, I can say for certain that while serving for jury duty, we were told in no uncertain terms that all electronic devices “must be turned off”. Is it too much to ask that our elected officials give us their full attention for the few hours every other week they are performing the duties for which they were elected.  Is it too much to ask that an open-public meeting have absolutely no appearance of impropriety or secret conversation?

And that is the fear of using a laptop or electronic pad sort of device. These devices have instant messaging and email capabilities – private negotiations could be happening in an open meeting, with nobody the wiser. Before any move is made to institute these devices, this issue must be addressed.

We agree that an agenda of more the 400 pages is unwieldy, and an unnecessary expense. It is surely a waste of paper. The cost and manpower savings of generating copies that will only end up in the recycle bin at the end of the meeting is certainly an issue that should be looked into.

The board meets twice a month. The county usually distributes more agendas at the second meeting, which generally has a higher attendance.

The packets contain resolutions that cover actions that range from spending to appointments voted on by the board.

Currently, 25 copies are available for the public at the second meeting of the month, Mecouch said.

Initially, the county will cut that number to about 10 that contain resolutions and another 10 that merely contain summaries of the resolutions.

Which brings us to another issue – the public’s right to information. One solution is to offer copies of the entire agenda in PDF format, online, available 24 hours prior to the scheduled freeholder meeting. A good majority of interested parties would now have access, and would be able to print out the agenda only, and still have access to the supporting documentation. However, many of our county watchdogs do not have internet access, nor are they interested in getting it. Paper copies would still have to be available for those citizens.

In the end, anything that streamlines the process, and saves money is a step in the right direction. If our elected leaders displayed an ounce of ethical behavior, we would not even be concerned about the private messages during a meeting.  An open public meeting is just that, and every effort must be made that one clique or another is not engaging in private negotiations.

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