Communities watching boards

Susan Hall Hardy says that in most places industrial authority executives don’t interact with their communities. Well, paraphrasing what Yakov Smirnoff used to say, in Lowndes County, community interact with officials!

Here is her comment from 15 March 2011 on this blog:

Not to be rude, although honesty is very often perceived that way these days, but, the industrial authority executives rarely thank their communities. In the six states I’m most familiar with, these fellows see themselves as beholden only to their employers. After all, they work with their directors, elected officials, a few bankers and city/county department heads. Rarely do they come in direct contact with the average voter, employee or homeowner, although all those people often pay a large part of their salaries and office operating expenses. Despite the public funding, these groups are usually tight lipped about how they do business and rarely provide the public with records or audits. We’ve all put up with that manner of doing business for so long we now see it as just that — the way you do business. We’d never accept that from a nonprofit organization, a charity group or most elected officials. Shame on us all.
Susan, you’re helping by reading, and you’re helping more by posting. Many local officials have noticed LAKE and this blog because they know people read it.

Anyone who wants to help still more, you, too, can go to a meeting. The Industrial Authority is a good one to attend, but I hear the Tree Commission isn’t trying as hard to enforce things, and does anybody know anything the Hospital Authority does? The Airport Authority? The Housing Authority? The Board of Health? Parks and Recreation? There are at least twenty local appointed boards and agencies, plus of course the five local city councils and the County Commission and other elected officials (sheriff, tax collector) and bodies (tax assessors and two school boards). LAKE could use help covering more of them. The community could use information on what they’re doing.

Some of them try pretty hard to inform the community, such as the Valdosta-Lowndes Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) which even has its own facebook page on which it posts all its meetings and other information (railroad repairs, straddling bus, and more). VLMPO often holds hearings and hardly anybody comes. Y’all come!

Other local boards, who knows what they do? Maybe citizens should find out!

Just showing up gets most local agencies to pay attention, because so few people ever do. If possible, stay for the whole meeting, because usually people only come for one agenda item and then leave, and staying for the whole meeting gets the point across that you’re interested in the agency, not just one item.

Even better, take notes, and send them to LAKE to publish. If you have a cell phone, you can probably also take video. Or most any small camera these days can also video. Everything you need is probably already in your pocket or purse!

Anything from 10 seconds to 3 minutes can be plenty of video. Wait until an interesting agenda item and video. Or go up to an elected or appointed official afterwards, ask a question, and video the answer. Or do the same with a citizen who spoke. Don’t worry about it not looking like professional TV: nobody cares about that. People do care about what’s going on, and you can help show them.

If it’s an open public meeting, Georgia law says you can record it, O.C.G.A. § 50-14-1-c.:

“Visual, sound, and visual and sound recording during open meetings shall be permitted.”
Upload the video to YouTube or Vimeo or flickr or use a flip cam and send us the link, and LAKE may post it. We don’t promise to post everything we get, but the more we get, the more we can post. LAKE is a small group of active citizens aided by many more from time to time. LAKE can use a whole flock of owls. Or post it yourself on your own blog or facebook or twitter or wherever: you are the media!

There are plenty of open records requests still to be filed. If you want suggestions, inquire at information at (the dashes are part of the address). For how, see the previous post on the Open Records Act. Send LAKE the results of your request and we may publish them. If you want your name mentioned in a LAKE post as the open records requestor, please say so.

Sometimes an open records request is all it takes to get a local government to publicly post something, as happened with my open records request for Lowndes County’s new Policies and Procedures for Citizens Wishing to be Heard. They even posted the open records request form itself on the web! I stood up in front of the Lowndes County Commission and thanked County Clerk Paige Dukes for doing those things.

All this citizen interest in what local government does is new to the local goverments. They’re not used to people actually looking at things they put on the web. And this is not just about saying “bad!” It’s also about publicly complimenting public officials when they do good. Believe me, they hear that so seldom they really appreciate it. Try it for yourself! With time, we may even get real dialog started.

Those new Lowndes County policies and procedures themselves may have been partly provoked by one of LAKE’s more famous videos. We need to keep watching the County Commission about that, since there’s plenty of room for improvement in those policies and procedures. Somebody needs to connect the dots.

The more people ask local government agencies to video their own meetings and post them on the web, the more likely they will do it, and then the more we the citizens can see what’s going on. The Lowndes County government has the necessary equipment; all they need to do is decide to do it. Valdosta might have to buy some equipment, although as I’ve discussed with the mayor in a public council meeting, a simple hand-held camera such as LAKE uses can pan and zoom, costs only a few hundred bucks, and an intern could do it. Ditto for all the other local municipalities, boards, and agencies. George Rhynes has been after the Valdosta City Council about this for ages, and I have spoken to them, the Lowndes County Commission, VLCIA, and the Hahira City Council about this. Please, more people ask local government agencies to video their own meetings and post them on the web.

If attending meetings doesn’t appeal to you, or you can’t because of work, there are other things you can do; see following posts.

Help yourself by helping us keep the owl flying.

-jsq for LAKE, the Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange