I’ve covered Corbin City Commission meetings, on and off, for the last 12 years now. I would consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the workings of city government.
After last week’s meeting of the Commission, I have to say I’m disappointed at what these monthly sessions have devolved into.
At least twice last Monday, Commissioners launched into relatively long discussions about things that they couldn’t be bothered to give even the slightest bit of explanation about for the benefit of those in attendance. When you could hear what was going on over the loud air conditioner, there was no context presented that anyone could latch onto to make any sense out of what was being said. Instead, we just got a series of mystifying, head-scratching public blowups. For instance, there was much arguing over a $1.5 million grant that the city did not get, but no one ever mentioned what exactly the grant was intended to pay for.
Another time, a bit of argument erupted over "lines" related to the expo center that cost more than expected to install. Were they water lines? Sewer lines? Electric? Who knows and they weren’t telling.
And then there was the $3 million loan the city quickly agreed to accept from the Kentucky League of Cities for, and I quote the agenda, "a public project." Why not be a little less vague and say it is to help pay to finish the Corbin Expo Center?
When the meeting ended, I thought for a second maybe I was the only one out of the loop, but when other local reporters had some of the same questions, I knew something was wrong. There was even some confusion among commissioners about how much the additional $3 million would bring the debt to on the expo center project. When even some public officials are in the dark, you know something is wrong.
There were times, not so long ago, that it seemed like the overriding goal at any particular meeting of the Commission seemed to be revealing as little information as possible in order to get the business of the month over and done with. Many times I left with more questions than answers.
Over time, elected and hired officials at City Hall grew to understand the importance of a little more transparency about what they were doing. They saw the wisdom in letting the public feel welcome and have a seat at the table. After all, it is a good thing that citizens feel enfranchised and a part of the ongoing narrative that charts the course to the future for our town.
This slowly changing attitude of enlightenment hit its peak, I think, in 2005 when then Mayor Amos Miller and Commissioners Phil Gregory, Joe Shelton, Alan Onkst and Bruce Farris unanimously agreed they were going to have work session meetings toward the end of each month. These men made an admirable decision. The meetings came halfway between regular scheduled commission meetings and were a great opportunity for elected officials, and anyone else for that matter, to legally come together and talk about things that were happening in city government. Often, the meetings would serve to clarify confusing issues, the status of ongoing projects, or address rumors and lingering questions. They were rather free wheeling affairs. Commissioners would talk about all manner of topics and citizens were welcomed and could chime in at any point. They were positive, informative and necessary. I think they conveyed a sense to people that there was nothing to hide.
When current Mayor Willard McBurney came into office in 2006, he led a charge to get rid of the meetings. For whatever reason, they had taken on a decidedly nastier tone. He viewed them as burdensome and little more than venues through which people could attack one another and argue. In some ways, he was right, though I think they were worth salvaging. I was disappointed, though, that many of the same men who voted to bring work sessions into existence in Corbin also snuffed them out so readily.
I often wonder if some of the problems and confusion in city government that have occurred in the last few years would have happened at all if work sessions were still in place.
Maybe its time to bring them back.