By Scott Robertson
When the Budget Committee of the Washington County Commission took it upon itself to name four commissioners to represent the commission in the creation of a task force (which it then misnamed as the Capital Projects Committee) in cooperation with the Board of Education, it overstepped its bounds. That was the opinion registered by County Attorney Tom Seeley at Monday night’s meeting of the county commission. Seeley quoted the commission’s own rules, which state the full commission must approve the membership of committees.
But before the full commission went along with Seeley’s opinion Monday, more than an hour was spent by commissioners asking and answering questions as to why they had been “kept in the dark” about the task force. Commissioner David Tomita began the inquiry by stating he had some general questions about its formation, function and purpose. Within a few minutes, Commissioner Danny Edens was saying, “I’ve got a lot of deception up here in my mind that would need to be cleared up and I don’t know who the person is to clear that up.”
Most of the questions commissioners asked over the next 60 minutes could have been answered easily in a report from the task force to the commission. Such a report was not part of the agenda for the commission meeting, as the task force meeting occurred after the Oct. 14 deadline for inclusion on the agenda.
The only meeting of the task force occurred last Tuesday, Oct. 18 at 9 a.m. News & Neighbor attended the meeting, but was unable to report on it in last week’s issue, as the meeting ended just minutes before our press deadline.
At last week’s meeting, many pertinent facts were set forth in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) approved by the task force, and in discussion. The MOU was to have been taken to both the board and the commission for full approval. It was not made available to commissioners Monday night, to the consternation of many, including Commissioner Mike Ford, who asked, “Where is it?” and Edens, who said, “I’ve never seen it.”
Commission Chair Greg Matherly questioned Monday why something called the Capital Projects Committee did not follow the definition of a capital projects committee as laid out by the County Technical Assistance Service. The MOU stated that the task force’s mission regarded school construction and renovation. It did not mention other capital projects, meaning it would be a school construction task force, not a true capital projects committee.
Several commissioners voiced dissatisfaction Monday that the task force seemed to directly circumvent the legal separation between the school board, whose responsibility and authority in school building projects is for site selection, design and construction – and the county commission, whose responsibility and authority is to determine the suitability of the school board’s plan and decide whether to fund it.
At the task force meeting last Tuesday, Budget Committee Chair Joe Grandy had explained how he saw the task force working. “(This task force’s) role is figuring out what the school board wants and what the county commission is willing to fund. As the Budget Committee, our desire is to get a detailed understanding of the school board’s wishes, desires and needs – and to come away feeling comfortable in recommending to the full commission a funding plan. If we get this going right, this will be a very functional working committee.”
Budget director Mitch Meredith had told the task force that if its four school board members could bring their priorities to the table, then the four commissioners could match those priorities with the funds available to most efficiently use those funds. That way, both the school board and the county commission could be confident they were getting the most for the taxpayers’ money. “We have finite resources,” Meredith said. “The better this committee functions, the more we hold down costs, the more we can do sooner.”
Meredith was taken to task by fellow commissioners Monday for stating first that the formation of the task force came at the behest of the school board, then “clarifying” that he had recommended the school board take part in the task force but adding the school board had voted unanimously to do so.*
School board member Phillip McLain then told the commission he recalled that only the Finance Committee of the board had approved Meredith’s recommendation, and that he could not remember whether that approval was unanimous.
The full board had, in fact, voted in favor of forming the task force, in a roll call vote Aug. 2, but that information was not made available to the commission Monday night. The board chose four members who later actively took part in the task force meeting, including Annette Buchanan, who was named chair.
The task force was scheduled to meet again Oct. 31. While that meeting has not yet been officially cancelled, the commission, on a voice vote Monday night, decided to table a resolution that would have tasked the Committee on Committees to fill the commission’s four seats.
*At the task force meeting, Mayor Dan Eldridge had stated, “this whole process was generated by the budget committee.”