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.