County looks to solve pub­lic com­ment prob­lems

Dis­cusses re­fin­ing process for submitted emails

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­

Over the last week, many around the county have been call­ing for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion on Charles County’s pub­lic com­ment process to nail down the county’s com­ment process on the pro­posed water­shed con­ser­va­tion district in western Charles County, a con­tro­ver­sial part of the county’s re­cently ap­proved com­pre­hen­sive plan.

Dur­ing a town hall meet­ing last month hosted by County Com­mis­sion­ers’ Vice Pres­i­dent Amanda Ste­wart (D), cit­i­zens spoke up about hav­ing their names used in sup­port of the district de­spite not hav­ing a po­si­tion or be­ing op­posed to it. Cit­i­zens claimed that their names were be­ing used in a form let­ter hosted by Ev­ery Action, an ad­vo­cate com­pany.

Ja­son Henry, the leader of the Charles County Cit­i­zens Rights Group, called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion shortly after dis­cov­er­ing the is­sue and con­tact­ing cit­i­zens. In a let­ter ad­dressed to the Charles County Planning Com­mis­sion and the Charles County

Board of Com­mis­sion­ers, Henry said the mat­ter needed to be re­viewed.

“We re­spect­fully re­quest that the planning com­mis­sion and the county con­duct a full and in­de­pen­dent re­view of all pub­lic com­ments sent to the planning com­mis­sion and board of com­mis­sion­ers on this is­sue,” Henry said.

Cit­i­zens have a right to have “fair and ac­cu­rate,” in­for­ma­tion, he said in the let­ter.

This week, dur­ing the county’s planning com­mis­sion hear­ing, the county had a re­sponse. Steve Kaii-Zei­gler, the di­rec­tor of the county’s Planning and Growth Man­age­ment Depart­ment, said the county is cur­rently ad­just­ing its pub­lic com­ment process to have a bet­ter han­dle on sit­u­a­tions like this.

As it stands, he said, the county does not use “any fil­ters” when it comes to the sub­mis­sion of form let­ters and that proved to be an is­sue when tak­ing com­ments on the water­shed con­ser­va­tion district.

“Any­one who wants to sub­mit any­thing re­ally has that abil­ity to do it,” Kaii-Zei­gler said. “In that open type of op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dure, it is fraught with any is­sues that may arise.”

Nearly 75 per­cent of the 1,300 pieces of com­mu­ni­ca­tion the county has re­ceived was de­liv­ered via an on­line medium and many of them are form let­ters, he said. The county’s sys­tem does not cur­rently fil­ter through that, he said, and the staff has to go through and phys­i­cally iden­tify how many pieces of com­mu­ni­ca­tion are ei­ther for or against a given is­sue.

The county is cur­rently look­ing into hav­ing on­line com­ments submitted through a form res­i­dents will have to fill out in­di­vid­u­ally to show their sup­port or op­po­si­tion to a cer­tain is­sue, Kaii-Zei­gler said.

“One of the things we’re try­ing to do is give ev­ery­one their say,” Kaii-Zei­gler said.

Filling out a form would help the county fil­ter through the com­ments, he said, and en­sure au­then­tic sup­port or op­po­si­tion from cit­i­zens with them hav­ing to clear through dif­fer­ent hur­dles to iden­tify them­selves.

This is a strat­egy that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment uses when tak­ing pub­lic com­ments on­line, Kaii-Zei­gler said.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate that this is some­thing we have to do but it’s prob­a­bly some­thing we need to do,” he said.

Planning Com­mis­sioner Vicki Markel said it would also be a good strat­egy for the county, as cit­i­zens fill out the forms, to record their stance on what­ever is­sue they may be com­ment­ing on and con­tinue to send them in­for­ma­tion and up­dates on it.

For ex­am­ple, she said, any­time a new amend­ment is made it could be sent to cit­i­zens who have con­cerns or those who are in­ter­ested par­ties.

“I think that would clear up a lot of the con­fu­sion,” she said.

Planning Com­mis­sioner Nancy Schertler said she thinks it would be a sound strat­egy to also al­low cit­i­zens to add at­tach­ments to on­line forms they fill out so they can show why they sup­port some­thing if they choose to do so.

She said the best com­ments are the ones that point out is­sues the county may have.

“It’s not about the quan­tity of com­ments, it’s about the qual­ity,” she said. “Du­pli­cate com­ments don’t help.”

Kaii-Zei­gler agreed and said that would be some­thing the county’s in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy depart­ment could look into. In the past, pub­lic com­ments have been treated like a vote, he said, and that is some­thing that will change mov­ing for­ward.

As far as any in­ves­ti­ga­tion goes, Kaii-Zei­gler said, he and the county staff will leave that up to the county at­tor­ney’s of­fice to de­ter­mine whether that is needed. Ul­ti­mately, how this process works will be up to the com­mis­sion­ers, he said, and staff will just craft it.

But the en­tire sit­u­a­tion, he said, can prove to be valu­able to the county.

“We’re treat­ing this very much like a learn­ing op­por­tu­nity,” he said.

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