So somebody asked me, “Bill, what’s it feel like, now that you’re actually serving on an official county committee?”
Good question, and I hope my answer can encourage others to do the same, become a small but real part of our local government. First, it wasn’t my first time, since I had served as a public member on two committees back in the 1990s, when I lived in Osceola County. In those days, I was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. But I found the dye was not very good, so I finally gave up on the Democrats.
There are some differences between serving now versus back then. The members of the previous committees I had been on only had to be approved by very local authorities. But here in Highlands, the county commission has to approve all prospective members, at least of the one I’m on. And here, the county commissioners actually take turns sitting in on our meetings. That way, the commissioners can get to know our members and we can get to know them. I hadn’t expected that.
A committee at the county level also draws more respect than lower-level ones. I have done a considerable amount of historical research work for my committee, and always introduce myself as a committee member. Doing research around the county gets me better known and opens many doors. And getting better known gets more respect for Greens, as people who can be trusted with some responsibility.
Although I have lived in this county more than 11 years, since I’ve been appointed to an official body, I feel more a part of it, with a new perspective on life here.
I was actually surprised at how smoothly this committee operates. Everyone seems to be committed to a constructive approach to accomplishing tasks. It helps that my committee is the Historic Preservation Commission, as the subject matter is less controversial than that tackled on some other committees. It is a good experience being in a group with positive dynamics.
One thing I hadn’t expected was that, as an official government body, we are subject to the Florida Open Meetings Law. EHow explains:
The Florida Open Meetings Law . . . sets out exactly how transparent government meetings are to the public, protecting citizens from closed-door decision-making. This applies to all meetings of any state, municipal or political agency, even when there is no public participation allowed. The law requires that the time and place of such meetings be disclosed with reasonable notice to the public.
While this seems obvious, I found situations where it could easily and unintentionally be violated. For instance, I wanted to get an item on the agenda and yet I could not contact the committee chairperson directly. I needed to send this to a staff liaison, since committee members are not allowed to contact one another and in any way discuss committee business. Some elected officials in my area have gotten in serious hot water for violating this law, and I can see how this could happen, even if they were being careful. (And some aren’t so careful, thinking no one will find out what they do out of the public eye.)
Above all, committees can be important places to learn how to put our points across effectively. Some committee members certainly know of my Green affiliation, and I imagine they wanted to see what I would do once I became a colleague. After all, Greens, and other third party members, are sometimes looked upon as loose cannons. Some third parties here and elsewhere have done things that, let’s say, could have been done with more finesse, from a public relations standpoint.
I really hope to see other Greens get onto committees in their counties, fire districts, cities, etc. If we can show our commitment on citizen advisory committees, maybe the public will trust us more when our members run for elected offices.