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  • Last modified 32 days ago (June 20, 2019)

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Sins of commission

Just when we thought it was safe to get back into the murky waters of county government comes yet another shark attack, once again involving Great White commissioner Dianne Novak, whose gerrymandered district soon will include a bitten-out section of Marion, disembodied from rural areas surrounding it.

Her complaints this week about what she claims were two illegal closed-door sessions a week earlier — both of which she voted for — are even more evidence (in case anyone needed it) of serious dysfunction in the rooms beneath the courthouse clock, which all too often tolls for we, the future of Marion County.

With deafening secrecy embracing nearly every commission meeting — seven executive sessions to negotiate a new county engineer’s contract, at the end of which commissioners still didn’t find out why he left his previous job — exactly what happened in this case will be known only to a privileged (or put upon) few allowed to remain when the county shut its doors on openness in government.

Best as we can determine, the county’s appointed zoning administrator, Sharon Omstead, who asked for the secret session, either criticized or expressed job-related concern about Novak’s questioning of whether Omstead, a former assistant promoted only last fall, had overspent on legal advice regarding the proposed Expedition Wind development.

Novak’s original question might have been legitimate. The county seems to be incurring legal bills as fast as it watches washouts appear in rain-rutted roads. But only if you were to set up display cases of china in a pasture near one of those rutted roads — and invite a herd of male cattle plus “Mountain Mike” Beneke to peruse them — would Novak’s quest for information seem civil.

She first asked to see legal bills not as a commissioner but as a private citizen. Denied access to some documents for fear she might share them with lawyers for wind farm opponents, she next moved — as she should have in the first place — to review them with other commissioners, again behind closed doors.

Along the way, she apparently said enough to upset Omstead that Omstead decided to take one of two — count ’em, two — regular video recordings of commission meetings and edit segments together into something to show commissioners as if it were an illicit bachelor- party video.

Was Omstead being insecure and merely wanting to know whether she retained commissioners’ confidence? Or was she being uppity, at least in Novak’s mind, and accusatory? We’ll never know for sure. Just as we’ll never know for sure whether Novak’s appearance at an anti-wind-farm court hearing represented a willingness to throw herself, a named defendant in the case, under the bus to side with plaintiffs.

When questions aren’t asked

What we do know is that Omstead apparently possesses skills that, elsewhere during Monday’s meeting, were portrayed as so highly technical that thousands upon thousands of tax dollars will have to be spent next year to secure them.

Bad as the county handles inquiries by commissioners, it’s even worse when commissioners don’t make inquiries when warranted.

Once again this year, Sheriff Robb Craft is pushing for a mega-costly system that will allow deputies and police to redact — i.e., censor — body cam images obtained from officers.

The fact that no one we’ve met has ever seen body cam video, redacted or not, from Marion County law enforcement doesn’t seem to figure into the supposedly urgent need for the system.

When the system first was proposed more than a year ago, the stated justification was the need to protect children and families from explicit images. This year, the sales pitch has changed. It’s now urgently needed to obey new regulations forbidding law enforcement officers to publicly release any driver’s license number inadvertently caught on video.

Either way, what the system does is pretty much the same as what Omstead did. Any decent video editing software allows not only assembling clips but also blurring out undesired portions. Even a newly promoted county bureaucrat who hasn’t taken weeks to learn the system can run software like Adobe Premiere, which costs only a few dollars a month but is strong enough to handle the editing of everything from home movies to TV documentaries and feature films.

Apparently, its existence isn’t acknowledged in any of the sales literature for the product that the county wants to buy at a much higher price.

3 + 2 > 3 . . . or will it be?

There seems to be something about the commissioners’ meeting room that takes relatively ordinary, sensible, and likable people and makes them behave at times like Curley, Larry, and Moe. Adding two more commissioners may be the answer, but they just as easily could become Curley Joe and Schemp.

Were it not for county clerk Tina Spencer, the current three probably would have started greasing squeaky payroll wheels with raises this week instead of waiting to decide what to do with an $18,000 pay study they commissioned a year ago that has all the credibility of a $3 bill.

They didn’t sound a beep of protest when minions proposed replacing as antiquated a raft of computers that are better than half those used by the citizens who will pay for their replacements.

They insisted on seeking out-of-county bids for vehicles even though they equally insist on going only to in-county banks when buying loans to finance such purchases.

Instead of scrutinizing new spending requests, commissioners were consumed by desires to put so much excess money into various accounts that the accounts will have substantial untapped cash reserves by year’s end next year.

While that might be prudent financially, it is controversial politically and tends to create slush funds from which sudden spending frenzies can occur.

Instead of talking about saving taxpayer money, most discussion focused on opportunities to spend even more — only very regrettably, for roads — with whatever tax loopholes could be lined up.

And where were the potential Curley Joes and Schemps when all this happened? After attending nearly all other meetings, candidates for two new commission seats to be voted on this fall were conspicuously absent Monday, on a day when they could have learned the highly technical jargon on budget preparation — something they probably will have to attend special training to learn about after their election.

Individually, everyone involved seems to be a well-meaning, insightful, and dedicated public servant — right up until each meeting begins. Perhaps we need to check the HVAC system at the courthouse for some sort of secret silliness gas piped in by anti-democratic terrorists.

Then again, that would be just another phantom menace commissioners could spend our hard-earn tax money chasing.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 20, 2019

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