County looks to solve public comment problems
Discusses refining process for submitted emails
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.