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Our Views: A self-serving agenda
Open government clearly isnt a priority for Hall commissioners irked by news coverage
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gainesvilletimes.com
Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

Thursday’s feeble effort by county commissioners to defend voting on issues not listed on meeting agendas would be funny if the matter weren’t so serious.

In case you missed it, commissioners approved a motion to honor Oct. 25 as a special day worthy of recognition. They did so to protest a story published last Sunday by The Times in which we pointed out their voting on issues not listed on meeting agendas could violate state law.

The discussion and unanimous vote to honor Friday wasn’t on the agenda. Commissioners did it to prove they could.
Get it? Can’t you just see kindergartners on the playground saying “We showed you!” then sticking out their tongues and running away giggling.

Pathetic.

Here’s what commissioners don’t understand: Open meeting laws protect the right of the public to know what is being done by the government. Ignoring those laws is a slap in the face to every resident of the county.

Leading the in-your-face aimed toward this newspaper was Craig Lutz, the commission’s own Captain of Chaos. Lutz’ political career, first as a city councilman in Flowery Branch and now as commissioner, has been reminiscent of that “Mayhem” character in the popular series of insurance commercials, leaving upheaval and confusion in his path wherever he goes.

As a Flowery Branch councilman, Lutz tried to turn that town into his personal political fiefdom. He has continued that quest as a commissioner, never missing an opportunity to insert himself into city business.

Now he hopes to regain power in Flowery Branch by getting his wife, Shanon, and a crony, Chris Fetterman, elected as mayor and councilman, so he can run — or is it ruin? — the city government.

You remember Mrs. Lutz, who voted twice in last year’s election even though she knew she wasn’t supposed to be doing so. One Lutz in office is too many; two would be an electoral mistake from which the county might never recover.

Lutz is consistent, however, in his hatred of The Times, which hasn’t been shy about pointing out his shortcomings, such as suggesting the county build a park and ballfields without restroom facilities.

Lutz so dislikes The Times that he has lobbied to have a newspaper outside the county named as legal organ. He doesn’t care if that means local residents wouldn’t have access to public notice advertising required by law. If it has a negative impact on The Times, Lutz is for it.

We understand why Lutz wanted to make The Times an issue rather than dealing honestly with the fact commissioners haven’t been following the law. That his four colleagues went along with such silliness is disappointing, but not surprising.

Commissioner Billy Powell has been upset with the newspaper ever since we published that an office building he owned was being foreclosed upon. In fact, four of the five commissioners have had personal or professional financial issues that we’ve written about: Lutz had a bankruptcy, Scott Gibbs a foreclosure and a business bankruptcy, and Jeff Stowe had to close his business.

Reporting such news no doubt embarrassed them all. We feel constituents have a right to know whether their elected officials have money problems, but there’s little doubt those commissioners relished a chance to take a shot at The Times.

Powell also doesn’t like the fact that we have archives at The Times and can go back and show how his positions and votes have flip-flopped on issues such as sewer lines through the years.

As for Chairman Richard Mecum, who knows his motivation? Maybe his slap at The Times was a carryover from last year’s heated campaign. Or maybe he just isn’t a strong enough chairman to tell others when they need to be quiet. As chairman, Mecum could stop commissioners from voting on issues not listed on agendas, but has not done so.

Commissioners want to downplay the agenda issue, saying the votes taken were insignificant, or that they were only meant to give direction to staff.

Lutz quoted the law Thursday, and that, at least, he got right. The law says there is supposed to be an agenda prepared in advance for public review. It provides for voting on issues “which become necessary to address during the course of a meeting.”

But those things commissioners have voted on haven’t just popped up in the course of meetings. One vote was to change the organizational structure for the library system. Do you think Gibbs was listening to a discussion of paving a road when it suddenly dawned on him that the library system needed a different structure?

Two of the votes in question dealt with complicated issues related to sewers. Powell had staffers prepare a press release prior to one such vote. Does that sound like something that came up in the course of a meeting and that no one knew about ahead of time?

This is a county government that likes to operate without inspection. It fights to keep records out of public review. It argues over access to documents. It doesn’t worry about piddling things like meeting agendas. There is a closed government mentality that permeates from the top down.

Commissioners made it clear they don’t like the spotlight shined upon their actions by The Times. That’s fine. Our job is to give those who rely upon us the information they need. Elected officials come and go, and many don’t like us. We can live with that.

Lutz noted that The Times can take the county to court if it thinks the commission isn’t following the law. And certainly we could, as could any resident of the county. You know how that works — you use your money to sue the county, and it then uses your tax money to fight you in court.

Instead, at least for now, we’ll argue the case in the court of public opinion, where the general public is fed up with elected officials who think they are above the law and too important to be bothered by those who think the governed have a right to know what elected officials are doing.

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