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Transparency In Cobb Government

There is a lot of talk about local government transparency. What does it mean?

There is a lot of talk about transparency in Government. What does it mean? To most people, transparency has to do with disclosure -- providing information about an issue, event, project, policy, program etc. and then providing a way for people to find and view that information. In a democracy, transparency should be defined as disclosure and discussion.

I have spent the better part of the last two years trying to change a local zoning ordinance. Before that, I lived with my head in the sand. I attended my first Board of Commissioners Meeting in July, 2011. Seventy four citizens spoke that on the proposed budget. Seventy four out of seven hundred thousand people that live in our county. Seventy four was considered a tremendous showout.

Cobb County government is tedious at best to navigate, to get answers, or to establish procedure. Most people do not have the tenacity to wade through the bureaucracy to find the correct information that they are looking for. We have a lot of people in the trenches of county government that do everything that they can, within given protocol, to help the common citizen out.

The workers are often handcuffed by apathy, or department rules. The County has a website with a lot of information, but short on answers. Leaving emails or messages with elected officials or department heads can be an exercise in futility.

On January 22, 2013, an incident occurred at the Board of Commissioners meeting that could have very easily been avoided by a flyer or sign stating Board Protocol- a procedural page on the County website. If a person has never been to a BOC meeting, how are they expected to know how they operate, or what is proper, expected, or even required.

At this point, only experience will tell you. We need a source of information that tells the public how meetings are conducted and operated. At a normal meeting, twelve people are allowed to speak during the Public Address portion. What should a person do to be one of those twelve?

The County has an official Rules of Produce, adopted January 22, 1991, but you will not find it at the website, or even at the Meetings. Section 1.09. spells out Public Participation in Board Meetings. I have a copy of this section because my ten year old daughter wanted to speak to the Board, and I had no idea if she could or not. I wrote to the County Attorney and asked the question. The County Attorney confirmed that she could, and offered this set of Rules. Transparency means that this 'Rules of Procedure' should be available to the public at the Board Meetings and on the County website.

What is the complete procedure to secure a Special Land Use Permit, or a Variance? You can find the application for such if you look hard enough on the County website. The application tells you what you need to submit. What about the requirements, or stipulations? You can find those sprinkled throughout the County Code, provided that you know what you are looking for. Nowhere is there a comprehensive document that walks a citizen through the entire process.

I have been through the Variance process, and it was frustrating to piecemeal information from the various county employees and websites. Transparency means that the public should be able to easily find out this information, perhaps at the County website.

I have heard the Citizens say that their voice is not heard, and I heard the County say that the people do not get involved. It is a vicious circle. The County should do a much better job at getting the needed information to the people. At the above mentioned BOC Meeting, the Planning Commission presented a synopsis of each the proposed Code Changes for 2013, and then there was a Public Hearing on the matter. There was no time for the people to absorb or digest the information presented, let alone form an educated opinion.

Twice, earlier in the month, the County placed a small ad buried in the Legal Section of the paper declaring that there would be proposed code changes at the Meeting, and details were available at the County Clerk's Office. Again, the information was there, provided that you knew where to find that needle in the haystack.

This is often the case in Board Meetings: a proposal is read, then the Chairman asks for comments or questions and calls for a vote in the same breath. Transparency means that the public should be able to easily find out information on Proposals, and have enough time to form educated opinions.

Government by the people, for the people, means that there should be no walls up between the citizens and those people that are paid by the citizens. The County government should work together with all of the citizens, not just the self important people in Civic Groups, Garden Clubs, and Chambers of Commerce. The people should find it easier to have open communication with the County than to solve a Rubik's Cube.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Joseph Pond January 31, 2013 at 06:58 PM
That document does not cover the requirement that a person must give their name in order to speak to the Board, nor is it available at the Meetings. It is incomplete at best. Simply doing what is 'required' does not mean it is in the best interest of open communication between the government and the people. It would better serve the county, it's people and government, to share more than just a "legal notice". Thank you for taking the time to respond!
Smyrnan February 01, 2013 at 04:00 AM
I live in Smyrna. What is this open communication that you write about? I have heard of it but have never experienced it here. Perhaps you could enlighten (educate?) those that call themselves the leaders of the city.
Neal Dow February 01, 2013 at 07:02 PM
"The onus is on the people to care enough to participate regularly...instead of rarely, & mostly after the fact. After all, we create, staff & enable government...& allow it to run amuck due to lack of participation." I can't believe you typed those words. You of all people. You who have called those who question the leadership of the city of Smyrna "whiners and complainers". Your picture by your name is also a statement of your opinion of the "whiners and complainers". You've got a lot of nerve posting that comment.
Ron McClellan February 22, 2013 at 10:05 AM
Well, in the broader sense I agree with a lot of the points you raised Joseph, but a few things need to be addressed. For starters, and it's a "pet peeve" of mine, is when folks and that included officials right on up to the President of the United States, refers to our system of Government as a "Democracy" we simply aren't, and thankfully so. In a Democracy, we probably wouldn't stand a chance in Hades of having chickens in Urban and Suburban areas. We live in a Constitutional Republic, that just kinda has some almost incidental democratic principle crossover. This is by design, as our forefathers were concerned about folks in the minority on issues of liberty. That's not splitting hairs, that is actually important to this specific situation. And while I agree that it might be nice if there was a sign or an information sheet, most folks with the I.Q. above that of a turnip know ya give your name before speaking before just about any governing body. And even if they didn't. when they tell ya that . . .well who cares if one is informed verbally or on a flyer. That being said, Commissioner Lee committed the "greater of two evils" in that situation. Mr. Wise(?) should have just stated his name, and Mr. Lee shouldn't have been such a butt when he didn't want to. "When two fools collide" is how I see that issue.
Ron McClellan February 22, 2013 at 10:19 AM
I also take exception with trying to shoehorn discussion, at least the manner of discussion you appear to be referring to, under the umbrella of transparency. Ehhh . . . . no. Ain't flying. You're reaching too far into left field. It's a "right to be heard" issue, not a transparency of government issue. Call it what it is please. People today try to "redefine" things too much nowadays, ironically THAT is half the problem with being able to find information from the government that you complain about. Now as for the Notice for the meetings, Sorry but that's "how it is" and is actually perfectly adequate. It would be nice to see a full page add and hear about the meeting on the radio, but hey, it works. And I believe Cobb makes a calendar available on their website, which is how I keep up with the County and City Government meetings and work sessions, No sense in whining about every little thing Joseph, there are bigger fish to fry. I mean really, whining about the size of the meeting notice? A Flyer to state the obvious? I'd just like to know why Mr. Wise didn't just say his name? And . . .why Commissioner Lee didn't stop the police officer who overstepped his authority if the officer did that of his own volition, as Lee claimed. That WAS MR. Lees authority, as Chairman. The officer had no duty, or even a right, to supersede or act without authority of Mr. Lee.

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