Posted on Jun 21, 2015 by Richard Belisle; reprinted with permission
CHARLES TOWN. W.Va. — On most every Thursday that the Jefferson County Commission has met since 2011, Eleanor Finn has sat in a front-row chair, quietly taking notes on how the five elected officials meet their responsibilities to the citizens of the county. Last week, Finn handed them an annual report card on how they’re doing — OK in some areas, work needed in others. Citizens don’t generally attend meetings unless they’re following a particular agenda item or they’re part of a group supporting or opposing an issue. Finn, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., is a member of the League of Women Voters of Jefferson County, and has been representing the league as the commissioners’ watchdog for four years.
“I volunteered because I wanted to learn more about how government works,” she said. “Observers monitor the issues being discussed and the process. There is no personal or partisan agenda. It is hoped the league’s presence will encourage better and more transparent government.” Before meetings, Finn goes online to the commission’s website to review the upcoming agenda. “Sometimes, they have 150 pages of support documents and letters,” she said. “There is more transparency in agendas and information packets now, and they are posted on the Monday before the Thursday meeting.”
Another issue in Finn’s report covered the three-minute time limit for public comments at meetings. “It is enforced courteously, but if a citizen needs more time, they need to sign a request form to get on the agenda for the next meeting,” she said. “It would help if they made request forms available at the meetings.” Finn also questioned what happens to comments people make at public hearings. She said the planning department keeps them and make them available. “This encourages people to make comments and feel they have been heard,” she said. “It’s not clear where a citizen can go in government to ask a question, find help with a problem, get a permit or just find someone to talk to,” Finn said. “Not everyone has computer access.”
The commission has made strides in controlling the county’s budget and getting department heads and elected officials involved in the process, she said. “Tim Stanton, the county’s director of finance, makes easily understandable presentations to the commissioners, including what services at what cost,” she said. There is a continuing issue about reviews of contracts of more than $10,000, Finn said. “This should be done every three years,” she said. “Costs change over time.”
Another nagging issue is the failure of the board to discuss space needs for all county functions. “A space-needs study was proposed more than two years ago and has not resurfaced,” Finn said. “We don’t know how thorough it was or even if it was completed. Many county buildings are historic and are not easily heated, cooled or made American Disabilities Act-compliant. These discussions would benefit from taking place in public with fewer executive sessions.”
The commissioners accepted the league’s report with little or no comment. Commissioner Dale Manuel said the league’s presence at commissioner meetings is “a real asset to the county and to the commissioners. To have someone monitoring the actions of elected bodies, someone like Eleanor Finn who is nonpartisan, is a good thing.”
Richard Belisle is a reporter for The Herald-Mail. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.