The citizens of Frankford will only have one opportunity to speak at council meetings in the future, as this past week the Frankford Town Council voted 3-2 to remove the second “citizens’ privilege” that had previously been in place on council meeting agendas.
Councilwoman Cheryl Workman motioned to remove the second citizens’ privilege, seconded by Councilman Jesse Truitt. Workman, Truitt and Councilman Charles Shelton then voted in favor of the motion. Council President Joanne Bacon and Councilwoman Pam Davis voted in opposition.
“I think if you do put somebody on the agenda, you get more time,” said Truitt of his reasoning in voting to delete the second citizens’ privilege. “If Miss Kathy [Murray] has a question, you’ll be on there — we’ll be prepared to answer your question…”
“Some stuff we don’t have right here… It gives us a whole 30 days to get you an answer.”
Workman said she agreed with Truitt’s reasoning.
“The other reason I chose to delete the second one is it’s the same topic — you get the same person back after back,” she said, adding that she felt public comments go back and forth between citizens, with little order.
Resident Jerry Smith asked council to explain how, if citizens must speak prior to council discussion of an agenda item, they would be able to address items that had yet to be discussed by the council at that point in the meeting.
“It seems to me that making us speak at the beginning of the meeting is to prevent us from questioning the council, from asking questions,” he said.
The decision confused some who attended the meeting, who had believed the change would mean they would no longer have any opportunity to speak to the council before an item was brought to a possible vote.
“By doing away with citizens’ privilege I’m not going to have an opportunity to comment on anything that’s on the current agenda. I’m always going to be 30 days behind. So, anything you vote for, you will have already voted for before we’ve had the chance to have our say,” said Robbie Murray.
Workman said the citizens would still have the opportunity to comment on items on the meetings’ agendas during the first citizens’ privilege, at the beginning of the meeting, which will be retained.
Resident and former mayor Bernard Lynch said the original reason behind adding an additional citizens’ privilege at the end of council meetings had been to give citizens the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding items not posted on the agenda.
“All this other stuff that’s going on should not be allowed,” he said. “I don’t know why you want to change it, but evidently you do.”
Instead of having a second time for residents to voice concerns, the council will continue to accept citizens’ requests to be placed on the agenda for an upcoming council meeting.
Resident Dawn Beck said the council is being too restrictive in deciding when citizens can speak and what they’re allowed to speak about.
“Are you the town or are we the town?” she asked. “Where do we get a word in edgewise? We’re the town, not you six.”
“We represent the town, the residents and taxpayers,” said Bacon.
“You can run for office, too,” responded Truitt.
Resident Marty Presley said he had requested to be placed on the October agenda and was told that such an addition required a majority vote of the council.
“I was told the majority of the council wasn’t made aware of it,” he said.
The council members said they had all been called about the request, and there was a majority vote to not include Presley on the agenda.
“Charles [Shelton] made a suggestion — instead of coming here and ranting on about things — if you have questions to ask, about being on the agenda,” said resident Jerry Smith. “It had been tried before… We were turned down each time. The same thing is occurring now. From the way it’s turning out to be, it’s virtually impossible to get on the agenda. How long are we going to allow this to go on?”
Resident Greg Welch said he had requested to be placed on the agenda for October to discuss the Town’s Charter change related to pensions but was not placed on the agenda.
“Was there a vote taken to not have the Charter change discussed on the agenda? … Was it unanimous? Can I hear what it was,” he asked.
“I voted no, because the decision has already been made. I don’t know what else we can do,” said Bacon.
In December 2013, Welch filed two complaints with the Attorney General’s Office, alleging the town violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by not discussing changing the Town’s Charter related to pensions.
“Council voted to approve the amendment without discussing or revealing what the changes were,” he wrote in his Dec. 4, 2013, letter.
In the Jan. 13, 2014, decision by Deputy Attorney Edward Black, the State found that the Town was not in violation of FOIA, as the topic was placed on the agenda for the council’s Dec. 2, 2013, meeting.
“At the beginning of the Dec. 2 meeting, the Council took public comment with respect to posted agenda items. There were no objections to the proposed amendment. During the ‘New Business’ portion of the meeting, without discussion, a motion was made and approved to authorize [Town Solicitor] Mr. [Dennis] Schrader to forward the proposed amendment to the local legislative representatives for action by the General Assembly…
“The record in the case reflects and we find, the issue the Council has attempted to address through the proposed amendment was discussed informally at several prior public meetings, at least some of which Mr. Welch attended. Mr. Welch himself brought the issue to the Council’s attention at least once.”
“He was incorrect,” said Welch at the Oct. 6 meeting with Black. “He stated there was no proof that you met and discussed the changes to the Town’s Charter in closed session. You didn’t do it in the open. The fact is there’s nothing that shows you discussed it in open session, and that proves that you did violate FOIA.
“All the complaints are about procedure. He didn’t resolve anything. He misrepresented FOIA… You all don’t make these decisions behind closed doors just because the Attorney General’s Office supports it.”
Councilwoman Pam Davis, who was late to arrive at the Dec. 2, 2013, meeting said she would like to review the minutes again to make sure the Town followed procedure. She made a motion to allow Welch on the following month’s agenda; however, the motion was not seconded.
Property owner Kathy Murray said she, too, had submitted a request to be placed on October’s agenda; however, her request was not presented to the council in time. The council voted unanimously to place her on the agenda for the November meeting.
Residents still concerned about pension
In July, Presley, a financial advisor, had given the council a presentation on different pension plans available to the Town. He also provided a number of companies for them to contact in order to get more information on plans.
“To my knowledge, none of those companies have been contacted,” he said. “Are we to read anything into that?”
“I don’t think so,” said Bacon. “I think we need to talk about it as a council and make a decision.”
Presley emphasized that the council needs to weigh all its options before voting on the pension plan.
Workman said the structure of the workshop on the issue will be different from regular council meetings. While it will be open to the public, the public will not be allowed to participate in the discussions.
“You all can sit in, you can listen, you can write and take notes. At a workshop meeting we will discuss and you will listen.”
Resident Dean Esham asked why the council wasn’t being more forthright with those concerned about what will happen with regard to pension buy-ins.
“I’ll be honest — I don’t know what my decision will be,” said Workman. “It’s still something we’re pondering.”
“If we’re even going with a pension plan,” added Bacon.
Rep. John Atkins was in attendance during the meeting and remained silent until asked by Workman if he’d care to comment.
“Obviously, I’ve walked into a hornet’s nest,” said Atkins to the council and the citizens. He suggested that the Town council appoint a committee comprised of two council members and two residents to review pension options.
“If four of you can sit down a couple times, I think cooler heads would prevail,” he said. “You can explain your reasoning for wanting to do this. They can explain their concerns and possibly come to some middle ground. That’s the way it works in the capital —somehow decide a better motion forward and bring it back to everyone and say what this is, what we’ve decided as a collective group of equal representation.
“I think the way you’re headed right now, both sides back and forth, I don’t think you’re getting a lot accomplished on both sides for the good of the citizens of Frankford.”
Atkins said such a committee may help the citizens feel as if their concerns are being addressed.
“You wouldn’t have a lot of the back-and-forth… I don’t think you’re getting a lot accomplished.”
Resident Elizabeth Carpenter said she agreed with Atkins’ suggestion.
“I think if we, as a collective, felt we were getting the answers to the questions posed, then these meetings would be a lot more productive.”
Atkins also offered the Town any assistance they may need — be it an expert from the State pension office, someone from the Attorney General’s Office or an attorney from the House of Representatives.
“I think a smaller group could come to a decision,” he added.