County prepares public comment system after email issues surface
After an email form letter from Every Action, an advocacy organization, recently rattled the Charles County Planning Commission’s public comment system, the county has made moves to counteract email form letters and online support.
Some county citizens claimed their names were improperly used in support of the watershed conservation district zoning text amendment. Jason Henry, the leader of the Charles County Citizen’s Rights group in opposition to the watershed conservation district, said hundreds of emails in opposition of the zoning text amendment were also removed from the system after he submitted them.
Steve Ball, the director of planning for the county, said he and his staff had to go through and tabulate who was for and against the zoning text amendment by hand for the public comment process because of the email form letter.
To counteract that for the Charles County Board of Commissioner’s public hearings, the county has created a public comment submission webpage where citizens must state their support or opposition to an item themselves rather than being involved in a chain or group.
“We had great difficulty at the staff level, adequately compiling, categorizing the email traffic that was received,” said Steve Kaii-Zeigler, the director of planning and growth management in the county. “Much of it came through a web platform.”
The county recognized the problem that created, Kaii-Zeigler said, so they decided to implement a system used on the federal and state levels of government.
The form, he said, would allow citizens to state their intent and tell the commissioners why they support an item or are against an item. The “fillable form,” Kaii-Zeigler said, will be used for the record in the county commissioners’ slate of public hearings on the text amendment.
The watershed conservation district, a controversial part of the county’s adopted comprehensive plan, affects a large portion of land in western Charles County. According to its supporters, the watershed conservation district aims to protect an environmentally-sensitive area from overdevelopment and damage. Opponents say it stifles growth and restricts property owners on what they can do with property they own.
Danielle Mitchell, the clerk of the board of county commissioners, said the form does not allow citizens to add attachments to their forms. However, she said, they are still allowed to mail in different items, if necessary.
Kaii-Zeigler said the county saw “about 1,300” individual transactions on record with the planning commission. But most of those came in the form of “6,000 or 9,000” individual emails.
“Individuals were sending each one of you emails ... it was the same email going to upwards of 10 or 15 people,” he said. “It became a difficult thing for us to deal with.”
Commissioner Debra Davis (D) said she still had concerns about the process, however. The form did not require individuals to provide their address along with their comment.
In any instance, she said, a person from anywhere could submit public comment and have it on the same record as actual Charles County citizens.
“We’d be in the same predicament,” Davis said. “It would be helpful if we knew these were county residents.”
Evelyn Jacobson, the chief of information technology for the Charles County government, said their name, email address and their support are required. And individuals must inform the county whether they represent a group.
However, Jacobson said, the county can make it mandatory if that is what the board of commissioners see fit.
Commissioner Ken Robinson (D) said he agreed with Davis’ point. Robinson has previously said he does not “seriously” consider individual public comment from citizens who live outside of the county, under most circumstances.
In the current process, Robinson said, when the county asks for public comment, their address must be included. The form should be the same way, he noted.
“If we’re going to ask for public comment, we should ask for their address,” he said. “It should be mandatory.”
Despite the commissioners saying they would make an address mandatory, Henry said he still is skeptical of the commissioners’ new system. They should have required an address from the start, he noted.
“It should always be mandatory,” Henry said.
The public hearings on the watershed conservation district are set for 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 24, at the County Government Building. Individuals can sign up for either meeting. Sign-ins will start 30 minutes before the first meeting at 3:30.