County pre­pares pub­lic com­ment sys­tem af­ter email is­sues sur­face

Maryland Independent - - News - By MICHAEL SYKES II msykes@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @SykesIndyNews

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.

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