County overrun with committees: Chamberlain, Sides unite to review unnecessary panels

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette

Salisbury Post

County commissioners appear ready to take a machete to the kudzu-like infestation of county committees and board.

A disagreement between two county commissioners has turned into an in-depth look at the dozens of commissions, boards and committees created by the county.

Chairman Arnold Chamberlain and Commissioner Jim Sides have gotten over the initial spat about appointments to boards and are now united in finding ways to trim or eliminate some boards.

Sides initially objected to Chamberlain’s appointment of commissioners as liaisons to various boards. Sides challenged whether the chairman had the authority to make some of the appointments.

Chamberlain said he made the appointments the same way the chairman has always done, but then agreed that it’s time to do a thorough review of the appointments and of the committees and boards. “It’s time to see if we can get rid of some of them,” said Chamberlain.

At the outset, Vice Chairman Chad Mitchell questioned why commissioners needed to be appointed as a liaison to so many boards.

The committees that appear to be in the bulls-eye are what are often called the “Blount Committees,” referring to panels advocated or created during Steve Blount’s time on the board, including time serving as chairman.

Among those committees are the Strategic Planning Commission and the Sustainable Community Development Commission.

Commissioners put County Attorney Jay Dees to work on finding a way to disband some committees which may have become self-sustaining by making their own appointments.

One such committee is the Strategic Planning Commission. Started a decade or more ago, the commission was apparently reactivated in 2003 following the Board of Commissioners’ annual retreat.

Chamberlain urged an extensive look at Strategic Planning Commission and worried openly about creating such boards.

“We’ve bestowed the power of elected officials on the board,” said Chamberlain, adding, “take a real strong look.”

Chamberlain said some of the panels never show up until they want something from the county — usually money.

There are other committees, created in recent years, no one is quite sure if they still exist — farmland preservation, land-use planning and greenways, for example. Current commissioners have made it clear they will not spend county tax dollars on either farmland preservation or greenways. The county stopped the land-use planning process two years ago.

And there are dozens, perhaps a 100 or more panels that the Board of Commissioners make appointments to. Some are state mandated, such as the Social Services, Health and Alcoholic Beverage Control Boards.

Each volunteer fire department has a board of commissioners that oversees the fire department budgets.

Others exist because of requirement for state or federal funding, such as the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.

In the past, commissioners have created new panels as issues arose such as the Air Quality Commission, when a study found Rowan was among 10 areas in the country with the worst air.

There are also advisory boards including the Parks and Recreation Commission which functions to make recommendations to the Board of Commissioners. But the board routinely approves some contracts.

Chamberlain questioned whether they need a parks and recreation board, suggesting other county departments operate without advisory boards.

Starting in December, Sides began an extensive review of the various boards and their attendance. He reported that in some cases people who are appointed never show up for a single meeting.

He said some boards routinely fail to have a quorum and can’t do any business.

Sides has also proposed that efforts to put the sunshine on county government extend to all committees and boards created by the county.

He is advocating that all such panels be included on the county Web site and required to post meeting dates, times and places in advance.

Sides said they should also post an agenda to let the public know what will be discussed and should also post the minutes of each meeting.

“These people are doing the public’s business,” said Sides, contending that the public should have easy access to find out what they are doing.

Sides began his research after a misstep involving the Historic Landmarks Commission. Commissioners scheduled a public hearing on changes to the ordinance dealing with historic landmarks. One of the proposed changes would have allowed a property to be designated a landmark without the owner’s permission.

After a minor brouhaha, it turned out the Landmark Commission didn’t actually request the hearing or the change. The commission failed to have quorum at its November meeting and didn’t discuss the recommendation which actually came from the state.

Last week, some members of the Rowan County Board went on record resisting the county’s attempt to reduce the size of the Planning Board from 11 to 9.

A report on the findings by Dees and Sides is expected at an upcoming meeting.