Washington County Commissioners are hoping the newly created Oversight and Steering Committee will refocus the body’s scattered legislative efforts and establish a more effective commission structure, but there remain some concerns the committee could overreach its ambiguously designated boundaries.
The committee, first proposed by Commissioner Joe Corso at an Oct. 10 Rules Committee meeting, was officially created at Oct. 31’s full commission meeting by a vote of 18-6. With Commissioner Skip Oldham absent, the ‘no’ votes came from Commissioners Pete Speropulos, Sam Humphreys, Mitch Meredith, David Tomita, Ken Lyon and Joe Grandy.
Corso said one of his reasons for creating the committee stemmed from the recent change in the commission chair: Mayor Dan Eldridge, who had run commission meetings since he took office in September 2010, stepped down from that role to retain his right to veto the budget in early September 2011, and Commissioner Greg Matherly was voted in as the commission’s new leader.
“With the recently changed chairs, our organizational structure is beginning to take shape. We run our own meetings now,” Corso told commissioners Monday. “We can use this committee to set the commission’s legislative agenda for the subsequent year. It’s designed to allow the commission, with the full participation of the mayor, to set a direction.”
Eldridge also saw the change in commission leadership as a chance for the body to reorganize itself and renew its relationships with county officials.
“I was not elected to run the commission, although state law allowed me to serve as chair,” Eldridge said. “With my stepping down, the commission can redefine its role.”
While there may have been some growing pains while the commission adjusted to its new relationship with the mayor — and vice versa — Eldridge now sees an opportunity for more effective communication, and consequently, more effective county government.
“What Greg (Matherly) and I have worked out is an understanding that we have to communicate, because when I was both mayor and chair, there wasn’t that need. This is totally different now. Stepping down created a necessity for that communication. It changed the whole dynamic,” Eldridge said. “I knew that would happen, and I thought it would be a positive move. In the weeks immediately following, I think it created a vacuum. But now I think it’s finally starting to work the way it’s supposed to. We now see a new structure developing with Greg’s leadership.”
According to Corso, the oversight committee will be made up of the mayor, commission chair, vice chair, and the chairmen of each of the commission’s nine standing committees. Currently, the committee would consist of Matherly, Eldridge, Corso, Grandy, Speropulos, Lee Chase, Gerald Sparks, Mark Ferguson, and Roger Nave, but would be open to other commissioners attending.
“As with every committee, every (commissioner) is invited and would be allowed to speak,” Corso said. “Unlike the past perhaps, these meetings will be in public. If we adopt this, it will be a giant step toward better communication with the public.”
But several commissioners questioned the need for and membership of the committee, including Grandy, who proposed putting limitations on what the committee could do, especially in the policy realm.
“I think we need clearer definitions or more specifically, clearer limitations on what this committee can do,” Grandy said, referencing a line in the resolution stating the committee would “be authorized to study and develop policy and proposals for consideration by the Board of County Commissioners.”
Per the resolution creating the committee: “The Oversight Committee will deal with all matters of commission business not specifically covered by other committees. The committee will develop and review private acts for consideration by the Board of County Commissioners. It will have general oversight on operations of county government on matters not specifically assigned to other committees to include, but not limited to, matters involving the County Attorney and litigation, review of base personnel policies, elderly tax relief, county web site operations, efficiency in government operations, concerns of county officials, and the coordination of activities and relations between the Board of County Commissioners and county officials. The committee shall be authorized to study and develop policy and proposals for consideration by the Board of County Commissioners and to refer issues and matters to other standing committees for further study and report to the commissioners.”
But Chase maintained he did not intend for the committee to create policy or usurp duties from existing committees despite its broad description of roles.
“It is not the intent of this committee to circumvent any other committees’ responsibilities,” Chase said. “Its primary focus will be in planning. We’re not proposing getting into any other committee’s authority. By virtue of the committee’s structure, I think that provision is virtually guaranteed. It’s not designed to make routine decisions, but to do planning and envisioning.”
Corso backed Chase on that point.
“All legislative bodies have something like a steering committee. It allows the legislative body to focus its efforts and not run around with 25 different agendas,” Corso said. “The idea is the committee will give tasks to other standing committees, and the standing committees will do their work.”
Still, concerns about the influence of the oversight committee remain.
Commissioner Sam Humphreys objected to the committee, saying it would revert the power of the county commission to a handful of commissioners.
“I hate to see this,” Humphreys said. “This is the executive-type decisions in the hands of three, four, five, six people, and the rest of us are out of the loop.”
From the county executive’s standpoint, the steering committee should make sure it stays within its boundaries.
“In concept, I think the steering committee’s intention is good,” Eldridge said. “I just hope it doesn’t develop into an opportunity for commissioners to overreach.”
But Corso sees the steering committee as a way to create a stronger commission not by overreaching, but by coordinating efforts and communicating better.
“I don’t think it’s reflected in the public, but we’ve got good people up here, even though we don’t always agree. This is a chance to better relations with the mayor, each other, and the public,” he said. “It’s a matter of coordination. Policies will still come out of committees. This committee is to make sure we’re on target for what we think is most important.”