BUCKEYE LAKE – Buckeye Lake Village Council’s public comment policy prompted a fierce debate Monday night.
Council’s policy of listening, but not responding to any questions until after the meeting or at a subsequent drew fire from several residents. Several council members commented that they too felt left out of the loop on village information.
Several people asked village officials questions only to be told that public comment period is not a “question and answer” period, and is only an opportunity for residents to address the council; this policy is common among local public boards and councils. Hostility that has been building toward the policy came to a head Monday night.
West Bank resident Tory Wolfe asked if the Buckeye Lake Fire Association had formal non-profit status. She was told to wait for an answer.
Former council member Donna Thompson asked if Water Supervisor Toby Miller quit his job with the Licking County 911 Center when he accepted his new position with the village. She expected an answer.
“Make your comment and have a seat. I wish you would abide by our rules,” said council president Charlene Hayden.
“Rick (Baker, Buckeye Lake Village Mayor), you have an obligation to answer questions,” said council member Jeryne Peterson later in the meeting. “It’s come to a point where it’s necessary.” She said she could sympathize with residents asking questions because she’s heard little about the committee appointed by Baker to assess and advise the Buckeye Fire Department. The department’s renewal levy is on the November ballot. Peterson wondered how the assessment process is progressing. “I truly mean it, if I were sitting in your seat,” she would answer the questions being asked.
Council member Kaye Hartman said she didn’t want people who have questions for the council to be discouraged. “It’s important to be here and make comments,” she said, although Hartman asked if they could be stated in a friendly manner.
“The fire (department assessment) committee doesn’t respond to me, because everything they respond is public information,” said Baker. He clarified Tuesday to say that he isn’t directly involved with the committee’s meetings because he doesn’t want to affect its findings in any way. He said committee member Paul Clark told him that committee members met with fire department members and the committee is planning a meeting for next week to compare notes.
“I’m getting tired of saying, ‘I don’t know what’s going on,’” said Hartman Monday night, adding that the administration needs to provide more information to council.
Peterson said she supports the fire levy now that an independent committee is reviewing the department’s procedures, but that committee needs to report its progress to council.
Peterson said council encourages the public to attend their meetings and then refuses to answer their questions during the meeting.
“There are some questions you have to answer,” said Hartman. She said answering questions when the answer is immediately available would reduce the hostilities building between residents with questions and village officials.
Council member Clay Carroll said he believes there should be a way to find balance so that council meetings don’t extend until midnight as council members answer hours of questions at once.
“I make phone calls on my own because that’s the only way I can get the truth,” said Peterson “There are things going on that council people don’t know.”
Hayden said she does some work ahead of time so she has something to present to the various committees, but she’s happy to have the committees take the lead. Hayden said she believes she’s being blamed for the public comment policy when implementing it was a council decision. “I’m not going to take the fall for that,” she said. “It was a council decision.”
Hayden also said she wouldn’t object to giving more responsibilities to the committees. “I would really love it if someone else could conduct business. I’m fine with it going to committee. I work hard for council. It’s very depressing to me,” she said.
“Most public entities do not allow dialogue during business meetings,” said Hayden in a statement Wednesday. “Most allow public comment and have a limited time frame for speaking. When Tim (Matheny, former service director) was here, he actually mentioned to me that public comment should be just that. It is not a time for discussion. I am in favor of answering questions for residents. I think it could be up to the Rules Committee to determine how we accomplish that goal. As council president, it is my job to maintain decorum in the meeting and I will do that according to Roberts Rules of Order and, from this point forward, there will always be a uniformed officer at our council meetings. Answering questions as they arise can lead to the meeting getting out of control. Some questions can be answered quickly and do not disrupt the flow of business. Other questions require a more lengthy answer, which may, or may not, be related to anyone other than the person asking the question. So, where do you draw the line as to which questions you answer? If you answer some and don’t answer others immediately, you are accused of showing favoritism. Then you have some residents who are asking questions mostly for the theatrics. Then, other people ask questions relating to employees, or potential employees. I think it is non-productive to feed the theatrics and it is inappropriate to answer some questions regarding employees. This is all a very delicate balance between serving residents who are really interested in what is happening in the Village and maintaining a meeting that does not depart from accomplishing the business at hand. I have not totally made up my mind how I will handle the situation. I will have conversation with council members so they know the history of why the current rule exists and so I can get input on their thoughts. I also want to get the Mayor’s thoughts about handling the situation.”
In other village news:
• Council members unanimously approved a resolution of support for the fire department’s five-year, five mills renewal levy, but some members of the public were far less supportive.
Resident Judy Cook said she called the Buckeye Lake Fire Department four times last year, and while the response times were good, the squad wasn’t able to transport, even after she suffered a heart attack. “It was frightening to wait for Millersport to arrive after having a heart attack,” she said.
Former council member Peggy Wells said she wanted to respond to Fiscal Officer Vince Popo’s letter in The Beacon. “He said,’It is never a step in the right direction to tear down an institution because there is a dislike for individuals.’ Vince, I agree but that’s not what’s happening here,” she said in a statement. “You have totally mischaracterized the intentions of all of us who have simply called for better leadership and management of the fire department.
You’re not a resident of this village or the consumer of services offered by this department. Or, often in this case lack of services offered by the department. If it were your family or your neighbors affected, I bet you would have a different opinion! We all have very busy lives and prefer spending our time at home with our families instead of down here trying to appeal to a group of politicians who for the most part don’t even want to respond to our questions or concerns.
“And when they do respond it’s either by saying we don’t have anything better to do than complain or claim we’re making personal attacks. So, lets talk about whether it’s personal or not? This is absolutely not a personal attack on (Buckeye Lake Fire) Chief Pete Leindecker. He’s never done anything to me personally, except waste my tax dollars with his lack of attention and lack of performance as chief.
“How personal is it? The performance of the fire department is potentially the most personal experience each and every one of us could have with a village employee. If any one of us suffers from an accident at home, a sudden illness, a heart attack, a stroke or an allergic reaction, the fire department personnel are who we count on to help us in our time of need.
“Vince also stated that, ‘if Buckeye Lake loses the funding, the village will lose its department. The truth is that wouldn’t happen unless the levy failed three times! Let me remind Vince of a letter he received April 12 of this year from Cindy Haas, Deputy Auditor for Licking County. She said the fivemill levy for Fire & EMS will expire in the tax year 2012 and the last year collected is 2013. The letter states that our levy can go on the ballot for the first time in November of this year and if necessary, May and November of 2013.
“We have an entire year to put this fire department on probation and give them time to make the necessary changes. If the current chief can do the job, fine. I don’t see any evidence that he has the desire to make any changes. And believe me, if the levy passes nothing will change! Residents, if you pass the fire levy, the village officials will assume you think everything is okay as it is. We all know that isn’t true! If you want better response time and better quality leadership, vote on the fire levy. The same levy will come up again for our vote in May and if we turn it down again, the final chance to pass it is a year from now! In the meantime, the funding will continue! Don’t let anyone use scare tactics to control how you vote.”
Former fire department member George Braden disagreed. “We need that fire levy,” he said, adding that he served on the department for “quite a few years.
“Let the people know we need it,” said Braden.